Today marks 18th day of the 30-day legislative session. Rumors of a special session(s) soon-after swirl the Capitol halls like echoes in the marble naves of the century-old temple of democracy.
The robust beginning of the session and the new spirit of bipartisanship proclaimed by legislative leaders signaled promise of a productive gathering of the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly.
But, alas, the hourglass is emptying, and so far only one bill has made it to the Governor’s desk: House Bill 7 that gives bonding authority to the state’s public universities to self-finance their own construction projects for student housing and academic and athletic complexes.
With issues ranging from industrial hemp to public pension reform, lawmakers might leave the legislative table in 12 days with their bellies full but their plates un-cleared.
Last week, the House gave approval to a bill aimed at improving the bachelor degree attainment in the east and west coal-producing counties of the state. It’s a goal of Pike County Democrat Leslie Combs who pursued (along with House Speaker Greg Stumbo) an attempt last year to make the privately-owned University of Pikeville a state-supported institution for that same reason.
The measure’s metamorphosis this session is embodied in House Bill 210 that creates the Kentucky Coal County College Completion Program to award scholarships to students in coal- producing counties to get their bachelor’s degree from schools in those areas. Thirty-four Kentucky coal counties are impacted by the bill, 26 in the east and 8 in the west. Bell County Democrat Rick Nelson made an unsuccessful attempt at broadening the bill to let kids in coal-producing counties attend any public institution they choose in the state, but that proposed floor amendment was ruled out of order.
House Minority Floor leader Jeff Hoover referenced some recent studies critical of private universities’ matriculation rates and student loan defaults. He said the report ranked the University of Pikeville number one in students who failed to earn a degree after a six-year stint on the campus. He questioned whether Comb’s measure would upend that ranking.
Hoover’s Republican colleague Ben Waide, co-sponsor of HB 210, redefined the bill as an economic development and answer to the brain drain because it will make it more likely for college graduates in coal-producing counties to remain there and start businesses that will boost those lagging economies. Representative Combs doubled-down on her message for better education and quality of life for those in the margins.
Pike County Democrat Keith Hall opined that the money made available for the scholarships was paid for on the backs of coal miners through coal severance taxes into state coffers. Fifty percent of coal severance tax dollars, he added, is designated to the state general fund. He said the measure is not one of charity, but an opportunity rightly owed to coal producing counties.
The maximum scholarship of $6,000 dollars a year would be awarded for a student attending a participating institution that is a nonprofit, independent college or university. Lesser scholarship awards would be available for college satellite or extension campuses or to those pursuing a degree in-state but outside the designated coal counties. The measure cleared the House 97 to zero, and now waits for assignment to a Senate committee.
In other news…
A measure to allow overseas military to cast absentee ballots electronically was snagged in committee last week. Senate Bill 1 would allow armed forces members, their spouses and others overseas to register to vote and get an absentee ballot electronically. Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes shared a witness table with Senate President Robert Stivers in pitching SB 1, but they disagree over a key provision which would enable military personnel to actually vote online. Stivers omitted the provision via committee amendment but Grimes hopes to restore it.
As it stand now ,SB 1 would let overseas voters get their ballots via fax, e-mail or another secure electronic transmission system, but they would have to mail in their ballots. Secretary of State Grimes said about 300 overseas absentee ballots were not counted in last year’s general election in Kentucky for a host of reasons. She asserted that failing to modernize has costs you can literally count.
President Stivers wants to study the issue and ensure the integrity of Internet voting before taking further action.
SB 1, as amended in committee last Thursday by the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee now waits for action by the full Senate membership.
On Friday last week, House Licensing and Occupations chairman Dennis Keene introduced — for discussion only — HB 52 to expand gambling in the Commonwealth. It does not include a constitutional amendment to let voters decide on gaming expansion as some previous efforts contained. Representative Keene says while the exact dollar determination of casino gambling in the state is unknown, economists on staff with the Legislative Research Commission estimate that seven casinos would generate more than $900 million a year, yielding a yearly tax revenue of $295 million. He laid out how the revenue pie would be sliced in today’s hearing. Some of the money would be injected into the state’s anemic public pension systems.
HB 52 was for discussion only and no vote was taken.
You can watch entire meetings of any of the bills mentioned in this post and see our nightly reports at ket.org/legislature. Tune into “Legislative Update” each weeknight at 11pm ET for a daily digest of Capitol happenings and follow me on Twitter @ReneeKET.