FRANKFORT – The first few weeks of a legislative session may seem slow at first glance, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of these opening days.
That’s because this is the time when legislators and the governor alike lay out their priorities, setting the stage for what we hope can be accomplished by the time we finish our work, which this year will be on April 13th.
Since this is an even-numbered year, passing a budget to run state government will be the main focus. The House will begin working on Governor Bevin’s proposal after he delivers it on Jan. 16th, and while moderate revenue growth is forecast for the next two years, there is already a long list of needs in such areas as education, healthcare and our public retirement systems.
Adding to the difficulty is the governor’s recent announcement that broad areas of state spending are being reduced by 1.3 percent on average between now and July, the start of the next budget cycle. This will resolve a $156 million shortfall recently predicted by the state’s economists.
The cuts do not affect such critical areas as per-pupil spending in our elementary and secondary schools, but the governor has warned that previously protected programs like that could be at risk in the budget he presents. This comes at a time when many state agencies have already seen their own spending levels reduced by a third or more over the past decade.
What ultimately happens with the budget will likely be tied to how legislators address possible reforms of our state retirement systems and tax code, two areas that Governor Bevin has said he also would like to tackle this legislative session.
It is vitally important to emphasize that as of Friday morning, nothing had been formally presented in any of these areas. As such, it is impossible to say what exactly will be debated, much less what will become law.
I worry that taking on these three major tasks during the legislative session’s 60 working days is asking too much, especially with dozens of other bills also competing for attention. The public deserves a considerable amount of time to review and offer input on any plans that would have a major impact on their lives and pocketbooks.
This is how the legislative process should work, and we have used this formula many times in the past. Both parties and major stakeholders have sat down over the years and come up with model legislation on everything from previous retirement reforms to overhauls of our schools, and we can do it again this year if the process is transparent and bipartisan.
For now, it looks likely that retirement reforms will be considered first, with the governor and legislative leaders saying they would like to see a resolution by the end of this month. As you may recall, they initially called for a special legislative session last fall, but when it became clear that their original ideas had serious opposition – for good reason – they began working on an alternative. That could be unveiled as soon as this week.
The budget process, meanwhile, will likely run through the end of March, if tradition holds, and if tax reform is to be done, it will likely follow a similar timeline.
These are difficult tasks in the best of times, and they were made more difficult last week when House Speaker Jeff Hoover said he would not be stepping down from his post, as he said he would do in November. He has admitted to a secret settlement in a sexual harassment case involving a former employee of his, and is being investigated by the Legislative Ethics Commission as a result. A newly created task force formed by the Kentucky House has been named to review this matter as well.
All of these issues mean there will be plenty of debate in the weeks ahead, and I will keep you informed of how these and other legislative proposals unfold during that time. I need your help as well, so I can be sure I am truly representing our district. You can always reach me by addressing correspondence to Room, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or send me an email at First.Last@lrc.ky.gov.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305. These lines are staffed by legislative employees and maintain later hours during this time of year.
The General Assembly’s website – www.lrc.ky.gov – also has a considerable amount of information, including the full texts of all bills and resolutions.
I hope to hear from you soon.