Each fall, not long before Thanksgiving, the General Assembly’s administrative staff offers an in-depth look at some of the issues it believes could be debated during the legislative session that begins each January.
The report comes from the 15 main committees that vote on legislation, and while no one can predict what ultimately will become law, this analysis gives us a better idea of what may need to be addressed.
In general, the report doesn’t cover perennial topics, such as the budget, or those that may be highly visible but are being studied separately, which this year includes task forces focused on our tax code and public pension systems.
Even so, this year’s report touches on some high-profile matters. Of those, perhaps the most prominent centers on the state auditor’s recent findings regarding the special districts that dot the commonwealth.
There are more than 1,200 of them altogether, and they oversee everything from libraries, volunteer fire departments and utilities to health departments and airports. An estimated $2.7 billion flow through them annually, or about the same as the state spends on elementary and secondary education.
There is a growing consensus that more transparency and accountability are needed for these districts, so that we have a better idea of how the public’s money is being spent. There is also a need to streamline the law governing these districts as well, since the auditor found that there are more than 1,000 state statutes affecting them.
Two other high-profile issue papers in the legislative report center on children. One discusses the need to update our juvenile code so that we have a better system in place for such things as status offenses, which are violations like truancy that would not be an issue if committed by an adult. Too often, these adolescents are locked up when other alternatives may be a better fit. The legislature could also decide whether to draw a brighter line when it comes to young children who commit a felony crime. Though no age of criminal responsibility has been set in Kentucky, there is a growing push to have those 10 and younger handled through social services rather than the criminal justice system.
Another legal matter involving children is whether the state can do more to lower the number who die due to abuse or neglect. Kentucky is unfortunately a leader in this area, with the state rate significantly higher than the national average. The total in Kentucky has hovered around 30 a year since 2008.
This week, the governor’s Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Panel will hold its first-ever meeting, and it plans to meet four times a year. We in the House of Representatives have pushed to make this type of panel permanent, because we need a clear-headed, independent review of each case that will hopefully help bring our numbers as close to zero as possible.
Although there is not enough space in this column to highlight all of the legislative report – which can be found online at http://www.lrc.ky.gov/lrcpubs/info_bulletins.htm – there are several other issues worth mentioning. Those include:
• Whether the state should allow relevant military experience to count for licensure requirements in occupations like plumbing, heating & cooling and emergency medical services. If veterans have acquired the needed skills, this could make it easier for them to secure employment.
• Whether the state should add incentives to convert more vehicles to natural gas and to boost the number of fueling stations. Natural gas production has increased by a fourth nationally since 2005, while prices are down 75 percent since 2009. In July, it was estimated that drivers could save as much as $1.75 per gallon when compared to gasoline if they make the switch. A drawback is that conversion kits are expensive, ranging from $4,000 to $14,000.
• Whether the state should expand tax incentives to encourage more investment in research and development. While Kentucky offers a five percent credit for the construction of research facilities, it doesn’t provide anything else in this area. Arkansas and North Carolina, meanwhile, have tax credits as high as 35 percent on research expenses. Opponents of having Kentucky do more note that we are seeing faster job growth than many of our peer states and that we have a broader range of tax incentives for high-tech firms that may negate the need to do more specifically for research and development.
While the legislative committee process is slowing down as we move through the holidays, it’s poised to pick back up when the 2013 Regular Session begins on January 8th. Since it will be an odd-numbered year, my colleagues and I will be meeting for 30 legislative days, though the first four of those will be dedicated entirely to electing House and Senate leaders and establishing committee memberships for the next two years.
That leaves a little more than two dozen days to cover a lot of ground. Your input in this process is critical, so I encourage you to let me know your thoughts about any issue affecting the state. You can always 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.
I hope to hear from you soon.