With a long agenda and just 60 days to work through it, my fellow General Assembly members and I returned to the Capitol early last week to start another legislative session.
These opening days are not much different than a train leaving the station. It may seem slow at first, but it doesn’t take long to pick up steam.
This time is also important because it is when all 138 legislators solidify their priorities that they hope will become law by mid-April, when the state constitution says the session must end.
Since this is an even-numbered year, the biggest task will be enacting a two-year state budget. That process won’t formally begin until later this month, when Governor Andy Beshear gives us his proposal, but we do know that it will be challenging, since the state’s economists are only predicting limited growth during the next two fiscal years.
Unfortunately, our needs are expanding at a much faster rate. Our schools need more per-pupil funding and money for things like new textbooks and professional development. Public-pension costs, meanwhile, are still growing, but the silver lining here is that the long-term strategy we began implementing in 2013 is moving us in the right direction.
A related matter that must be addressed, however, is the financial future of our quasi-governmental agencies, which will have to decide later this spring whether to stay in or leave the state retirement system. Either way, they face substantial costs that could force them to close their doors or slash services.
These agencies include our public health departments and regional universities, as well as our domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers and mental-health organizations. It is vital we take steps this session so they can keep doing the job we count on them to do.
As these and other costs add up, there is increasing discussion about how we can bring in more revenue. The proposal with perhaps the most support is sports wagering, which more than 20 other states have already approved, including neighboring Indiana, Tennessee, Illinois and West Virginia.
Expanded gaming will almost certainly be part of the dialogue, too, although state Senate leaders have said they staunchly oppose this. I believe voters should have a say in what ultimately happens, and it is important to note that, over the past eight years, our historical racing machines have had about $7 billion wagered in them. The state’s portion of that for general expenses, however, is less than $40 million.
Beyond budgetary matters, there will be a push to legalize medical marijuana, something about 30 other states have done; and to limit the steep rise in teen use of e-cigarettes.
My hope is that this is the year we also approve a constitutional amendment to give voters the chance to permanently restore voting rights for most felons after they finish all aspects of their punishment. Governor Beshear’s recent executive order thankfully makes it possible for many of these men and women to register to vote, but a constitutional amendment is needed to make sure this is not reversed by a future governor.
Although not tied to the legislative session, those who are – or are thinking about – obtaining their GED got some great news last week, when Governor Beshear announced that the state would waive test fees. This will hopefully encourage many of the 335,000 Kentuckians without a GED or high school diploma to take on this challenge.
It is too soon to say what will ultimately become law, but it is certainly not too soon to let me know your views and concerns regarding these and other issues.
You can read all of these bills and follow their progress on the General Assembly’s website (Legislature.Ky.Gov), and you can leave a message for me or any legislator at 1-800-372-7181. The line is toll-free and is open each weekday. If you prefer email, my address is, Chris.Harris@lrc.ky.gov.
You can view committee meetings and what happens on the House and Senate floor each day by watching KET online. It also has a smartphone app that makes this especially easy.
I will of course keep you updated in the weeks ahead as the legislative session progresses, and I encourage you to reach out to me as well.