Summer seemed to come and go at a brisk pace, and, even though it has just arrived, fall appears also to be moving just as quickly. I enjoy the changing of the seasons. It presents a fitting opportunity to reflect on completed tasks as well as to focus on tasks that still need attending. The season change also serves to remind me that the 2017 Legislative Session is drawing close.
With that January 3 date looming, I have had several pieces of legislation drafted and have already pre-filed three bills. Brief synopses of the pre-filed bills are:
- BR 138, an act relating to wages. It would increase the minimum wage incrementally, from $7.25 an hour to $8.20 beginning July 1, 2018, then to $9.15 in July 2019 and finally to $10.10 the following year. The bill would increase the minimum hourly wage for tipped workers. The employer must pay $2.13 an hour beginning on the effective date of this bill. As of July 2018, the employer would be required to pay not less than $3.05 an hour, then $3.95 in July 2019 and $4.90 in July 2020.
- BR 97, an act relating to general principles of justification. A provision of the bill is to amend Kentucky law to require a reasonable belief that defensive force is necessary before it is justified.
- BR 103, an act relating to oaths. It would amend KRS 6.072 to require witnesses appearing before a committee, subcommittee, or task force of the Kentucky General Assembly to take an oath prior to giving testimony.
You can assess all the pre-filed bills by clinking on the following link: http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/17rs/prefiled/prefiled_sponsor_senate.htm.
In preparation of the 2017 Legislative Session, I utilized my summer trying to get more in tune to the issues that concern you. I traveled around the district and the state, attended meetings, and met with experts on an array of topics. Issues we have looked at in the past six weeks include accountability in education, non-traditional instruction days, the Zika virus, aerospace/aviation industry, and job development. A summary of some of the legislative meetings I attended in August and September follows:
- At the August Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting, the Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen L. Pruitt discussed the state’s efforts to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) enacted in 2015. The ESSA was designed to allow creativity and innovation among the individual states as well as support the sovereignty of states to govern their own education policies. ESSA also provides an opportunity for each state to create a new accountability system that will be more meaningful for children.
Measures of accountability must include at least four academic indicators such as proficiency on state tests, progress on English language proficiency for ELL students, assessing student growth in elementary and middle schools, and examining the graduation rates among high school students. Commissioner Pruitt stated that Kentucky is now in the process of drafting regulations to satisfy the ESSA requirements. The Kentucky Department of Education will seek public comments on its proposed education system and related regulatory framework in November with the intent of having a new education system approved by the United States Department of Education by August, 2017.
- In September, the Interim Joint Committee on Education held a discussion on the Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Program offered to Kentucky school districts. The NTI Program, or “Snow Bound Pilot” as it is sometimes called, gave districts that had missed an excessive number of school days due to weather or other emergencies the opportunity to conduct school through virtual or other non-traditional means on days that the district would normally cancel school. School districts originally eligible for this program must have missed an average of 20 school days over the previous three years. In 2014, the law was amended to delete the 20-day requirement and make all Kentucky school districts eligible to apply for the NTI Program. For the 2016-17 school year, 72 school districts have been approved by the Kentucky Department of Education for participation. In implementing the NTI Program, most districts use a blended model of instructional delivery that allows for students to chose online coursework or paper assignment delivery. The major benefit of the program is the maintenance of a continuity of learning among students.
Some of the challenges of the NTI Program are households with multiple students but only one computer and students who lack any internet access. At the end of school year 2015-16, 94% of eligible students participated in the NTI Program and 99% of all eligible teachers participated in the program.
- The August Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare meeting focused on the impact of the Zika virus in Kentucky. Zika is a viral infection primarily spread by the bite of a mosquito. To date, there have been 18 cases of Zika reported in Kentucky, but none of these cases occurred by local transmission within the state. Symptoms of the Zika virus include rash, fever, joint pain, and red eye. The greatest risk from Zika is to pregnant women or women who become pregnant while infected. Zika has caused birth defects in newborn children and presently there is no specific treatment for the ZIka virus.
The Kentucky Department for Public Health is coordinating a response plan for the Zika virus. Steps taken by the Kentucky Department for Public Health include the following: (1) emphasizing mosquito prevention and control, (2) warning Kentuckians of the risks for travel to countries where disease transmission is actively occurring, and (3) informing pregnant women or women who are seeking to become pregnant of the risks to newborn children caused by the Zika virus.
- The primary topic at the September Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare was the state’s social workers crisis. For several decades, Kentucky has experienced numerous and recurring problems with the service of its social workers, including a lack of accountability, secrecy in its operations, unmanageable caseloads maintained by social workers, excessive work hours, and injuries and death to social workers while performing their duties. Administrators for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services testified before the Committee that while these problems have existed, attempts are being made to correct these concerns. Administrators did admit that while state law mandates that the proper caseload for a social worker should be 12 cases, today social workers around the state are carrying an average caseload of 23 cases.
The Cabinet for Family and Health Services further mentioned that as of this month, Adult Protective Services had 4,623 cases of which 567 were past due cases, Child Protective Services had 8,801 cases of which 5,810 were past due cases. Many current and retired social workers spoke and elaborated on the heavy workload and safety problems encountered by social workers. Also, the social workers lamented that the elimination of kinship care severely reduced the number of children who were placed with relatives after being removed from the home.
- The Interim Joint Committee on Labor, Industry, and Economic Development in August discussed the aerospace/aviation industry in Kentucky. As has been reported previously in these legislative updates, the aerospace industry is the largest manufacturing export industry in Kentucky, exporting $8.77 billion in goods in 2015.
As of June 30, 2016 the total value of goods exported by the aerospace industry in Kentucky had already exceeded $5 billion. Since 2011, there have been 51 new or expanded facilities projects in Kentucky in the field of aerospace. In 2016 alone, there is anticipated $677 million in project development resulting in 2,318 new jobs. Back in 2014, I spoke of a cutting-edge start-up company affiliated with the University of Kentucky known as Space Tango. In the last two years, Space Tango has built space platforms and orbital vehicles for use by NASA. The company has now established its own offices in downtown Lexington.
Unquestionably, the most exciting new innovation by Space Tango is the study of “exomedicine,” i.e. research of medicine in space. Space Tango is looking at how the absence of gravity can be used to find new treatments in medicine, such as in the area of cancer.
- In September, the Interim Joint Committee on Tourism and Economic Development traveled to Shelby Valley High School in Pike County to discuss the job development currently taking place in eastern Kentucky. There was some discussion of new trails being designed in the region and of renovating and rebuilding our state parks. Jared Arnett, executive director of the Saving Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, gave an interesting summary on Kentucky’s broadband expansion. However, the highlight of the meeting came from the questions posed by the Shelby Valley students. These young people were quite concerned about the economic despair shrouding eastern Kentucky and queried the legislators about the absence of jobs and the large number of families leaving the area to find work. The students correctly noted that it is unlikely that employment in coal mining will return, but felt that the plight of the residents had been ignored by the state.
I shared with the students three courses of action which are needed immediately to rebuild eastern Kentucky: (1) the construction of an interstate highway through eastern Kentucky connecting Pikeville with Beckley, West Virginia and Bowling Green, Kentucky, (2) the creation a state university with a research component, and (3) industrial parks that are easily accessible by commercial trucks and rail.
Stay in Touch
As the weeks continue to fly past us, I want to remind you that I value your input as I have discussions with other legislators, agencies and individuals pertaining to public policy. Please share your ideas and suggestions with me. As always, thank you for your continued support, and if I can be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to email me.
Wishing you and your family all the best,
Reginald L. Thomas