FRANKFORT – My work as a state legislator may not have much in common with a doctor’s, but when I am considering which bills to support or oppose, I keep that profession’s primary rule in mind: First, do no harm.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t tough decisions to be made. In an era where costs are outpacing revenues, we’re just not able to do all we would like.
At the same time, I believe the state needs to do the most good for the most people whenever possible, which is why some of the legislation being considered this year raises concerns.
Last Thursday, for example, the House Economic and Workforce Development Committee voted for House Bill 2, which would put a 15-year lifetime limit on medical claims for those injured while on the job, unless they have a permanent and total disability, certain types of amputations or qualify for an exemption of up to two additional years.
First responders are among those who are understandably worried if this passes. One police officer testified that he was injured by a drunk driver while on duty and suffers from a herniated disc that will need ongoing medical attention. There are similar stories from others who already face a lifetime of pain through no fault of their own but may one day have to take on these medical costs themselves.
Supporters of the legislation call it an economic measure and say reforms are needed to bring our system more in line with our surrounding states, while opponents note that workers comp premiums have been in overall decline for a dozen years. Last fall, in fact, the Kentucky Department of Insurance commissioner called this market “strong,” raising the question of why changes are needed.
On Thursday, many in the House voted to put up another barrier when the chamber approved a bill that would make it more difficult for the Attorney General – our chief law enforcement officer – to pursue cases in which outside counsel is needed. This office contracts with these law firms because they have the size and expertise needed to take on large, complex cases like the ones being waged now against pharmaceutical companies accused of improperly providing opioids in the commonwealth.
No tax dollars are spent in these cases; instead, the outside law firms are only paid if a settlement is reached. This bill, however, would make that type of arrangement more unlikely at a time when we need to put even more resources toward stopping the drug epidemic. Many in the House even voted not to consider the financial impact this bill could have, which I think is unfortunate.
There are other examples where government is building roadblocks rather than bridges. Consider the governor’s recently approved Medicaid waiver, which calls for spending more than $370 million in state and federal tax dollars this year and next to create a new level of bureaucracy that will primarily track and enforce requirements affecting just a seventh of those now covered. Even among that select group, many will easily qualify – but still face plenty of red tape – because they already work but do not have employer-provided health insurance.
At a time when some say we can’t afford new school buses or textbooks, we have to ask whether we should spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on an untested system rather than use that money to improve our overall care.
Possible reforms of our public retirement systems, a widely discussed topic since last summer, follows the same trend of paying more for less.
Last fall, as you may recall, Governor Bevin and legislative leaders unveiled a plan that met swift and substantial opposition. We don’t know exactly how much it would have cost, because an actuarial study of the retirement system covering state and local government workers was never released publicly. The Kentucky Teachers Retirement System did release its study, however, and it showed that taxpayers would have had to pay $4 billion more over the next 20 years when compared to just maintaining what we’re doing. Even with that extra cost, the governor’s plan would still have put us much further behind in paying down that system’s long-term liability.
It appears most of the objectionable provisions of the original pension proposal will not be in the revised bill, but we don’t know for sure because the bill still had not been filed as of Friday, the 32nd of what is now a 59-day legislative session.
It is likely that a bill will be filed this week, but that leaves relatively little time to review something that would ultimately have an impact on billions of dollars in retirement savings and affect hundreds of thousands of current and future public workers, school employees and their retirees.
A decision of this magnitude deserves multiple public hearings, but with less than two dozen working days remaining in this session, and a budget still to enact, there is little time to have the dialog we deserve.
While there was a considerable amount of debate during committee meetings and in the House chamber last week, I was proud to see the leaders of both parties and all three branches of government come together to celebrate Black History Month in the Capitol Rotunda.
Kentucky has a strong tie to this national celebration, because the founder who set the stage for it was a graduate of Berea College. We also have been a leader in other ways, such as being the first state in the South to pass substantial civil rights legislation.
This week will be a short one because of President’s Day, but as we near the end of February, we only have a little more than a month to complete the bulk of our work. As always, I encourage you to let me know your views, so if you would like to write, my address is Room 432F, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or you can send me an email at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.
Our toll-free message line is 800-372-7181, and if you have a hearing impairment, it is 800-896-0305.
There is also a lot of information on the General Assembly’s website: www.lrc.ky.gov. If you are on Twitter, our caucus account is @KYHouseDems. We are on Facebook as well.