FRANKFORT – This week, the General Assembly returns to the Capitol to begin the 2017 Regular Session. Although the House and Senate are as old as Kentucky, this is only the ninth odd-year legislative session since our current state constitution was adopted in the late 1800s.
We actually were one of the last states to have its legislature meet annually. Now, there are just four that have not made the switch: Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.
Under the guidelines voters approved in 2000, Kentucky’s odd-year legislative sessions are a little different than their even-year counterparts. They’re half as long, for example, lasting for 30 working days instead of 60. The first four days of the odd-year sessions are also focused more on organizational matters, such as electing legislative leaders and making committee assignments for the next two years. Most of the debate and votes on bills then take place in February and March.
Because Kentucky still operates under a two-year budget cycle, enacted legislation in odd-numbered years generally does not alter state spending. Those types of bills can still be considered, but they require support from three-fifths of the House and Senate before they can be sent to the governor for his or her approval.
None of these differences mean odd-year legislative sessions are any less important than their even-year counterparts. In 2015, for example, we passed a far-reaching law to tackle the state’s heroin epidemic and broadened civil protective orders to include victims of dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. In 2013 and 2011, meanwhile, there were major reforms of our state retirement and criminal justice systems.
It is too soon to say what laws will be enacted over the next several months, but with a change in leadership in the Kentucky House, there promises to be a considerable amount of debate over several issues that have historically been blocked.
I will cover these more in-depth in the weeks ahead, but two of the more prominent would, if passed, make Kentucky a right-to-work state and repeal at least part of the state’s prevailing wage law.
Right-to-work means that employees working in a union would no longer be required to pay dues covering collective-bargaining costs. Opponents say it is unfair to put a bigger burden on dues-paying members, while proponents say it is unfair to make employees pay if they don’t want to.
As for potentially removing prevailing-wage requirements, opponents say it would drive construction wages down on major public works projects and favor out-of-state contractors, while proponents believe it would save costs.
I think we need to study these issues very closely before making any changes to long-standing law. Kentucky has a diverse economy, from agriculture and tourism to manufacturing, and there have been few if any problems with the construction of our schools and government buildings. We need to make sure we do not undercut that progress.
There are some issues expected to draw bipartisan support, based on votes during prior legislative sessions. That includes allowing voters to decide whether our communities should be able to add a local-option sales tax, which would then be used to build projects as large as an arena or as small as a community swimming pool. Once the project is paid for, the local-option sales tax would end.
Both sides of the aisle in the House have also supported allowing voters to decide whether most felons should have their voting rights restored once they have served all aspects of their punishment. As it is, Kentucky has some of the strictest laws in this area, with only the governor having the authority to restore voting rights.
There are several other issues I would like to see considered in the weeks ahead. For one, I believe we should pass a law providing the “last dollar in” to cover tuition costs for graduating high school students pursuing a two-year college degree. This scholarship would close any financial gap remaining after taking into account other scholarships and grants, and certain academic standards would have to be met as well.
Several states and communities have shown that making community college more affordable for families can be done at relatively low cost. Governor Bevin recently issued an executive order establishing some of the same guidelines, but I believe his program needs to be broadened. With a college degree more important than ever, this is a small investment that could reap some major dividends.
As always, but especially during legislative sessions, your input on these and other matters affecting the state is critical. If you would like to let me know your views, you can address correspondence to me at the Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
A lot of information, such as the texts of bills and meeting schedules, can be found on the General Assembly’s website: www.lrc.ky.gov.
I hope to hear from you soon.