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Legislators say session was a success

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‘I don’t have to apologize to my consituents for failing to do what we promised we would do.’

By Calen McKinney

 

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They did what their constituents wanted, so they say they believe that makes this year a success.

This year’s 30-day legislative session ended last Tuesday, and lawmakers took nearly every minute they could to reach agreements on bills. Gov. Steve Beshear has already signed many of the more than 100 bills legislators passed, meaning they will become law in July.

Several key issues were solved during the final two days of this year’s session, which were last Monday and Tuesday, from solving the state’s unfunded pension system to a compromise on allowing residents to grow hemp.  

From tax reform, redistricting and pensions to drug abuse, the high school dropout age and veteran voting, 674 bills were up for discussion this session.   

Taylor County’s state Rep. John “Bam” Carney, R-Campbellsville, and state Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, say they believe coming to a compromise to solve the state’s pension woes means this year’s session can be graded an A. “I think it made this session a huge success,” Carney said. “If we did not make changes, we basically had a system that was gonna collapse.”

Higdon said he left the capitol last week with a smile on his face, something he hadn’t been able to do before in his experience as a senator and representative. “ ... Feeling like we accomplished what we set to do. I don’t have to apologize to my constituents for failing to do what we promised we would do.”

Carney said earlier this year that the Kentucky Employment Retirement System is only about 28 percent funded. And, the system, as it was, he said, was a $30 billion unfunded liability.

“That’s a major burden that we have and had,” he said. “It threatens our bonding rates, our credit ratings.”

Higdon said he is pleased with the changes to the pension system.

“Is it perfect? No. It starts us down the path to get rid of the $30 billion unfunded liability,” he said.

“It stopped the bleeding.”

The last-minute details of the pension compromise were ironed out last Tuesday night, before the session was to officially end at midnight. And Carney said the deal was struck by legislators working in a bipartisan manner for the betterment of all Kentucky residents.

“I think Tuesday was a very significant day in the history of the commonwealth,” Carney said. “ ...

Should be a good sign of things to come for a positive relationship for the assembly.”

The pension reform will save an estimated $10 billion over the next 20 years, Carney said.

Several teachers contacted Carney about the pension discussion, but he says they need to know their retirements aren’t impacted by the plan.

The pension reform creates a new plan for any employees hired after Jan. 1. The state’s current employees and retirees won’t be impacted.

“I just think that’s massive,” Carney said.

Higdon said the new law doesn’t eliminate cost of living adjustments, but they have to be pre-funded. He said a companion bill calls for several ways to generate revenue to keep the pension plan afloat.

Carney, who represents Taylor and Adair counties, is serving his third term. He was elected to the minority whip spot in the Republican caucus this session, which gave him a more behind-the-scenes role in passing legislation.

Carney said another example of lawmakers working together across party lines is in the passage of a bill that makes growing hemp legal in Kentucky. The bill was approved at about 11 p.m. last Tuesday. It appeared to not have a chance before then, he said.

“Most people thought that it was probably dead,” he said. “It came in right at the finish line.”

But lawmakers and state officials met together in one last effort, which was a success. Carney said he voted for the bill and believes it will bring about many benefits to the state for years to come.

And though the bill will become law, Higdon said, the state must either have an exemption to the federal ban on growing hemp or United States lawmakers must agree to lift that ban.

Carney says he believes the state just might get that exemption. But Higdon said he is concerned that Beshear might still veto the bill.

“It’s not out of the woods yet,” he said. “I understand law enforcement’s concerns, [but] it’s a good bill.”

Higdon, who represents Taylor, Marion, Nelson, Mercer and Washington counties, is serving his second term as a senator. This is his 11th year as part of the General Assembly.

Making voting easier for those in the military, an issue of great important to both Carney and Higdon, will soon become law.

The law will allow voting ballots to be sent to military members electronically. They must be sent back in paper form, however.

Carney said concern about the law centers on keeping voting secure, which will continue to be discussed. He said he believes it’s important that those fighting for the United States get to cast their votes.

“It’s these people who are putting their lives at risk,” he said.

Higdon said he chairs the committee that discussed the law at length, and he is pleased the bill made it to Beshear’s desk.

“It doesn’t do what we want it to do,” he said. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

Higdon said a committee will continue to study the issue and push for soldiers to be allowed to submit ballots electronically. About 300 pallets of ballots didn’t make it back to the U.S. in time to be counted in the last election, he said.

Another law that Carney and Higdon refer to as significant is one that raises the dropout age in Kentucky to 18 from 16.

“I think it will be a very significant piece of legislation,” Carney said.

“I have no doubt that people are gonna have more opportunities by staying in and graduating school.”

The law states that school districts can voluntarily raise the dropout age. But when at least 55 percent of the districts in the state have done so, the remaining 45 percent have to do so within four years.

Higdon said he uses Taylor County as a model for educators looking for ways to keep students from dropping out of school.

“A kid in today’s world without a high school degree, statistics show that they don’t stand much of a chance of being successful.”

Beshear vetoed a religious freedom bill, but legislators took him to task when they overrode that veto.

“I was glad to see us step forward to override it,” Carney said.

The bill calls for state law to specify that religious belief can’t be infringed upon without a compelling governmental interest. Carney was one of several who sponsored the legislation.

He said some concerns about the law center on the potential lawsuits that might be filed. But he said he believes the positives of the bill outweigh those concerns.

Another new law centers on making special taxing districts more transparent and accountable to taxpayers.

Carney said the law will help taxpayers see exactly where the taxes they pay go and how they are used - and that the money is being used correctly.

“ ... It gives the public a chance to know more about what’s happening,” he said.

If special taxing districts want to approve a rate higher than a compensating rate, there must be a special hearing scheduled for public comment, scheduled before a fiscal court meeting. The law also requires special taxing districts to submit a budget to fiscal courts.

Higdon said he has always supported the bill.

“The taxing districts in Taylor County do a good job,” he said. “But there are some rogue, bad taxing districts in Kentucky.”

Other important new laws, according to Higdon, call for changes to pill mills, bonds for college campus projects, a review panel for fatal and near fatal abuse and neglect cases, changes to human trafficking laws and improvements to school safety plans.

A statewide smoking ban stalled at committee and didn’t make it to Beshear’s desk.
Although he believes this session was a good one, Carney said there were too many bills filed for consideration during a 30-day session.

He said he had hoped redistricting of the state’s legislative boundaries would have been discussed, but the Senate never considered the House’s recommendation.

When considered next session, Carney said, that will mean new boundaries will be discussed right before election time, which will put pressure on those running for office and voters to keep up with what is happening.

More information about this year’s session is available at www.lrc.ky.gov.

Carney can be reached at 465-5400 or john.carney@lrc.ky.gov. To contact Higdon, call (270) 692-6945 or email him at jimmy.higdon@lrc.ky.gov.