The Fruits of Ky. Lawmakers’ Labor: Pies or Pits?

Friday, March 15th, 2013

A common quizzical refrain buzzing through the Capitol campus corridors: will this year go down as a do-nothing session of the Kentucky General Assembly? The answer is relative and can be answered both ways.

If you measure success by a bargain on pension reform, industrialized hemp, tax reform, redistricting – the answer is likely ‘no.’

But, if you deem the session victorious for independent review of child death or near death cases stemming from abuse or neglect; raising the school dropout age from 16 to 18; stiffening laws and penalties for human trafficking while granting child victims safe harbor and giving bonding authority to the state’s public universities to build or renovate dormitories, academic buildings and sports complexes — you’ll quickly respond in the affirmative.

According to the Legislative Research Commission website, 101 pieces of legislation have been delivered to the governor so far. There were 216 Senate bills and 458 House bills filed for consideration in a 30-day session, a total not including the mounds of resolutions in each chamber. Simple math will direct you to your own conclusion about productivity or lack thereof. And, many contend that it’s not the number that counts, but the substance. Here’s some proof:

The first bill to reach the governor’s desk (on Feb 21st) was House Bill 7 that gives bonding authority to six of the state’s eight public universities for eleven campus construction projects totaling $363 million. The package includes $110 million in renovations to the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium.

Two weeks later, minor adjustments to the hallmark prescription drug abuse legislation of 2012 were approved. House Bill 217 tweaks laws that regulate pain management clinics, commonly called “pill mills” and requires doctors and pharmacists to use the state’s prescription drug monitoring system, KASPER. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and House Judiciary chairman John Tilley’s HB 217 exempts hospitals, long-term care facilities and hospice programs from some of the law’s restrictions on prescribing and dispensing narcotics.

Child advocates statewide were jubilant over the passage of two measures they say offer more protections and services to abused, neglected, and exploited children. House Bill 3 strengthens Kentucky’s human trafficking laws and offers “safe harbor” for child victims of trafficking –- giving them health and counseling services instead of locking them up for prostitution. It also establishes a victims’ fund from fines and asset seizure of traffickers. And, House Bill 290 makes permanent a 20-member external child fatality and near-death review panel that will have access to full and complete records of neglect and abuse cases. The Kentucky Youth Advocates applaud the measure for striking a balance between public disclosure and protecting sensitive information beyond the victim and perpetrator. Both of those measures were sent to the governor on Tuesday.

A compromise measure long in the making aims to lower the high school dropout rate by keeping kids in school until they turn 18. The initial language of Senate Bill 97 gave every school district the option of upping the legal school dropout age from 16 to 18. That still stands, but the House added language mandating that it will become mandatory statewide four years after more than half of the state’s districts implement it.

Skeptics of the school dropout plan are pessimistic that raising dropout age will actually increase graduation rates. Meade County Democrat Jeff Greer sponsored a rival bill in the state House that would gradually raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 statewide. He’s been on the compulsory attendance beat for at least four sessions, and this time around the compromise sealed the deal.

Louisville Democrat Reginald Meeks, a co-sponsor of the measure, offered some reserved praise. He said lawmakers are backing into a decision instead of forging ahead with progressive, forward-thinking action.

Madisonville Republican Ben Waide has been a relentless foe of the school dropout measure. He stood again to sternly assert that research shows raising the dropout age doesn’t guarantee an improvement in graduation rates.

The House approved the amended school dropout measure on a vote of 88 to ten. The Kentucky State Senate gave it final passage on a vote of 33 to 5. When the measure hit the Senate floor, it was carried by Senator David Givens of Greensburg, who said it had all the elements of a great compromise measure –- time, leaders, and substance. He said the bill wouldn’t work without a number of vigilant supports to see the red flags as youngsters fall into distress, especially early in the game.

Former governor Julian Carroll, who became Frankfort’s state senator in 2005, stressed the value of education for its capacity to prepare students for productive citizenship. He noted the high correlation between dropouts and prisoners.

Though Senate Bill 97 cleared the Senate 33 to 5, four Republicans joined Independent Bob Leeper in dissent. Governor Beshear and the First Lady released a statement of appreciation for passage of what they call “the graduation bill.” The statement said in part that Senate Bill 97 “will help to break the cycle of poverty, close the revolving door of prison, and improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians.”

The ACLU of Kentucky and the Fairness Campaign are among the groups pressuring Governor Steve Beshear to veto the ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act” embodied in House Bill 279. Defenders of the measure contend their religious freedoms have been under attack by the government at all levels, while opponents believe the idea will lead to discrimination of gays and lesbians and an erosion of civil rights protections by allowing folks to assert a deeply held religious belief for not doing business or interacting with minority groups. The governor has yet to announce his intentions toward the bill. He could allow it to become law without his signature.

Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer recited a lyric from the Rolling Stones in announcing a compromise on a bill giving more transparency to special taxing districts such as water and sewer districts, librarie, and fire departments. “You can’t always get what you want,” said Thayer of House Bill One. He has often bemoaned those special purpose government entities as exacting taxation without representation and argued for more local government control over their ability to levy taxes and fees. In the end, negotiators agreed making special taxing districts hold public meetings before increasing taxes or fees and to give reports to fiscal courts regarding their budgets. Non-compliance with the new rules could subject these boards to an audit by state officials and jeopardize state funding.

What’s undone? Hemp, pension reform, redistricting, and a slew of other headline-drawing issues. I’ll break those down next week.

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