For those who regularly follow the General Assembly, last week in the Kentucky House of Representatives offered a little bit of nostalgia, given that several of the bills we voted on have been through the chamber before.
That’s not unusual, of course. Some proposals in a legislative session may be hindered because of budget concerns, or because House and Senate priorities may differ, or because time may run out while more pressing issues are addressed. There is hope, though, that this is the year when a few of these perennial initiatives finally become law.
Perhaps the most prominent is raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18, something both Governor and First Lady Beshear have long championed. The House approved it overwhelmingly on Thursday, as it has done several times before in recent years.
Those of us supporting it believe we need to change a rule set nearly a century ago, when the lack of a high school diploma was not the impediment in the workforce it is today. This change would put us among the more than 30 other states that have set their minimum dropout age at 17 or 18.
This also would significantly reduce the estimated 6,000 students who leave our high schools early each year, virtually guaranteeing they will not reach their full potential. One estimate shows their career earnings will be $300,000 less than a fellow classmate who graduates. They also are likely to cost the state more in the future because of higher expenses tied to such safety-net programs as Medicaid.
We in the House are committed to ensuring that, if this does become law, it will be a positive change for everyone when phased in beginning in 2017. One major factor in our favor is the high quality of alternative education programs tailored to those at-risk of dropping out.
Two other bills affecting our children also made it through the House on Thursday. One would expand the state’s booster seat law so that the maximum limits would go from seven to eight years in age and 50 to 57 inches in height, while the other would call on our school cafeterias to do more to promote healthy food choices.
In other legislation familiar to House members, the chamber voted on Tuesday to make it easier for some Class “D” felons to re-enter society after they have completed their sentence. Class “D” is the lowest of the four levels of felony convictions.
This proposal would only be available if those applying maintain a clean criminal record for at least five years after their punishment is complete and their original charge was not tied to child, elder or sexual abuse. The hope is that, by allowing this expungement, they would no longer be hindered in those cases, such as work, where a felony conviction could be a problem.
On Friday, the House voted unanimously to update the state’s human trafficking laws, so that we can do more to protect victims forced into manual labor or prostitution. Authorities know of more than 100 victims in the last few years, but only about a fifth of these crimes have been prosecuted.
This bill would help change that by adding more training for law enforcement and making it easier to go after those engaged in human trafficking. Money seized in these cases would be used to provide treatment to victims, and they would also receive help from the state rather than face criminal charges themselves.
This week, the House is expected to help victims of another type of crime by extending domestic violence orders to dating couples, something virtually every other state already does. Currently, DVOs are limited to those who are married to or live with their abuser or who have a child with that person. The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Although not a factor in this year’s legislative session, there was some good news for the state last week certainly worth mentioning. The first report came on Monday, when we learned that the tax amnesty program authorized last year had met its goal. As a result, more than 27,000 taxpayers had paid their back income taxes, and they came from every county in Kentucky and every other state. Altogether, this short-term program raised $56.9 million, or about $200,000 more than had been expected.
Two days later, we found out that 2012 was a banner year for Kentucky’s exports. Overall, we shipped $22 billion worth of products to 199 other nations, which was a 10 percent increase over 2011; that growth was also more than twice the national average.
The 30-day legislative session reaches its halfway point this week, so an already busy schedule promises to become even faster-paced in the month ahead. I appreciate those who have already let me know their thoughts or concerns, and hope more will join them in the days ahead.
If you would like to leave a message for me or for any legislator, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305. More information can be found on the General Assembly’s website: www.lrc.ky.gov.