Kentucky: SENATE WEEK IN REVIEW


COLUMN

SENATE WEEK IN REVIEW

Submitted by Senator Reginald Thomas

FRANKFORT – The 2016 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly ended just before midnight Friday, April 15 as we pushed through a long week to finalize legislation, including a $21 billion spending plan for the two-year period beginning July 1, 2016.

The governor set the stage for the state budget debate when he rolled out his proposed budget during the fourth week of the session. He proposed major outlays of new money to pension systems but cut funding to universities and most state agencies by 9 percent to help come up with the money for the retirement plans. The House rejected the cuts being applied to universities and restored that funding. The Senate Republicans put the 9 percent cuts to universities back in.

The compromise reached between the Senate and House settled on a 4.5 percent reduction to funding for institutions of higher education with the exception of Kentucky State University in Frankfort, which is fully funded.

The compromise budget appropriates $973 million to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement Systems, an additional $186 million to the Kentucky Retirement Systems and $125 million in the form of a contribution to the “Permanent Fund” which will be a depository of certain surplus funds used to stabilize the pension funds in the most peril.

The budget the Kentucky General Assembly sent to the governor was a good plan. I sat at the table during the entire budget negotiations between leaders of both the House and Senate chambers as they worked on the finished product to send to the governor. In my mind, it was not perfect by any means, but the charge of the Budget Conference Committee was to find a compromise between the House and Senate budgets that would best meet the needs of citizens across the state.

The work was intense and the hours were long, but I was satisfied that the end product would serve our state well for the next biennium. It is very unfortunate that Governor Bevin used his veto power to make line item cuts that will affect Kentuckians across the commonwealth, especially in the area of education. A few of the vetoes made by Governor Bevin that were important components to move the state forward in the biennium are listed below:

  • Not only was the structure for the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program eliminated (with his veto of House Bill 626), but $9.4 million was cut from the budget to fund scholarships in 2016-17. An appropriation of $15 million does remain for scholarships for 2017-18.
  • Appropriations for lung-, colon-, and breast-cancer screening programs.
  • Funding for Kentucky Legal Education Opportunity Program, Access to Justice and Public Safety First.
  • Funding for Every1 Reads Program ($225,700 in each fiscal year).
  • Funds for pre-school education eligibility pilot project expansion up to 200 percent of poverty level.
  • Funding for Kentucky scholarships programs based on financial need – the College Access Program (CAP) and Kentucky Tuition Grant Program (KTG).

One significant plus, the budget bill includes $60 million in state money to go toward the $250 million Lexington Convention Center to make it an A-1 facility. House Bill 55 puts in place a revenue raising measure for the project by increasing the hotel tax by 2.5 percent points.

I have said repeatedly, this project will make a $100 million difference in Fayette County and it is absolutely critical for our city. Without the expansion project, we would continue to lose convention business to competitor cities. Currently, our tourism data tells us we are only marketing to 65 percent of the available national conventions and meetings market. Without this expansion, officials said the annual $42 million impact from the convention centers would drop by more than $13 million annually. Lexington could not suffer such a blow and continue to progress so I fought vigorously for this project.

Highlights of some priority areas shielded from cuts also include:

  • $175 million for a budget reserve trust fund;
  • fully funding public schools through 12th grade;
  • fully funding anti-heroin legislation from 2015;
  • raises for state troopers;
  • fully funding Kentucky Educational Television;
  • restoring funding to the Brain Injury Alliance of Kentucky;
  • preserving the Kentucky One Stop Business Portal, and
  • allocating a $5 million bond pool for Kentucky state parks.

We also passed a two-year road plan, which funds the Transportation Cabinet.

While the budget grabbed the headlines during this legislative session, we also passed some other legislation that will have a positive impact on the lives of all Kentuckians. I will share a summary highlighting some of the bills that passed this session next week. Through those measures, we took steps to protect our most vulnerable citizens, maintain our transportation infrastructure, and invest in education, public safety and job creation across the Commonwealth.

While this legislative session is over, the work in Frankfort continues, as interim joint committees soon resume post session work.  Interim committees provide continuity of discussion for ongoing issues and provide forum for new and developing issues. It is the opportunity to take government to the people, as we sometimes have meetings outside of Frankfort, discuss issues in-depth, and allow bill identification, creation and approval for prefiling for the 2017 regular session. This enables bills to be introduced at the beginning of the session, allowing citizens ample time to express their opinions on the measures.

Please stay in contact with me during the interim by emailing me directly at reginald.thomas@lrc.ky.gov. Thank you and enjoy the remainder of our wonderful Kentucky spring.

-END-

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