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From the Reporter's Desk: Pensions and what I want to see this session

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By Zac Oakes

 

Christmas is just around the corner, and while I suppose I am too old to give Santa a Christmas wish list, I instead opted to present a wish list for what I hope to see come from the Kentucky Legislature when they convene in January for the 2019 Legislative Session. 

First up on the list is pension reform. Of course, a special session was called on Monday but was then adjourned on Tuesday with no bill, throwing citizens and legislators for a loop this week. It also threw this reporter for a loop since I had this column finished before Gov. Matt Bevin’s announcement on Monday and the legislature’s adjournment on Tuesday. 

As I am rewriting this Wednesday morning, this topic seems to be destined to dominate headlines for the next two or three months. 

Kentucky’s pension system needs to be reformed, but it needs to be reformed correctly, not hastily. It needs to be done with input from stakeholders and not done in secrecy at the last minute. This is too big of an issue to not do it the right way. 

I don’t like the way the special session was brought about. The special session was announced via an announcement from the governor on Facebook (I stop short of calling it a press conference since Bevin did not take any questions from the media that were present). It was announced four hours before the session was to begin. 

With government bodies, from city councils to fiscal courts to school boards, a 24-hour notice must be given before the meeting. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it would be a good step in the direction of open government to have the same requirement for a special legislative session. 

But alas, there was too much to try to iron out and too many differences among legislators to try to hash out a bill during the special session, so the legislature adjourned on Tuesday evening. In my opinion, this is probably a good move. Yes, something needs to be done with the state’s pension system but I believe it needs to be something Republicans and Democrats come together to work on with input from the stakeholders who will be affected. 

Will it be pretty? No. Will there be protests? Yes. Will everyone like the result? Absolutely not. It’s going to be a tough job, and I do not envy any of the legislators who will have to deal with this mess, but this is an issue that legislators have to go about with an open mind to find solutions that will help fix our system while respecting and listening to the former, current and future state employees who will be affected by changes.

But on to some other topics. 

Next up, medical marijuana. Approving medical marijuana isn’t just a stepping stone to approving recreational marijuana. Passing a bill to legalize medical marijuana in Kentucky would provide much-needed relief to people suffering from health conditions that have exhausted other remedies. Medical marijuana can help with conditions such as chronic pain, cancer and epilepsy, among others. 

Kentucky is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that continues to kill our citizens left and right. If medical marijuana can lessen the numbers of people relying on opioids for issues such as chronic pain, then it’s an easy decision. 

I know there are some issues to work out with how it is prescribed and who can prescribe it and some other logistical things, but more than 30 states allow it and could provide a framework of how to legislate it in Kentucky. 

Criminal justice reform is next up on the list. Shout out to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell for agreeing to allow a vote on a federal criminal justice reform bill in the U.S. Senate (now let’s make sure he follows up). But now, some changes could be made at the state level, namely in regard to bail reform.

Kentucky has the ninth-highest incarceration rate in the United States, the second-highest rate of women incarcerated, and the state has double the national rate of children who have experienced parental incarceration, according to an op-ed published by Dave Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. 

Keep in mind Kentucky’s incarceration numbers play a major financial role too. Kentucky will spend around $700 million on corrections in 2019, and around 70 percent of jails in Kentucky are at or over capacity, including the Taylor County Detention Center, which sat at 137 percent capacity according to the last report dated Nov. 29. 

According to a report from the Pegasus Institute titled Reform Opportunities in Kentucky’s Bail System, there were 64,123 non-violent, non-sexual defendants detained in Kentucky in 2016 because they could not afford their bail, staying an average of 109 days.

The study also shows that local governments lost $152 million last year because of Kentucky’s current bail system from citizens losing their jobs after being forced to stay in jail due to not being able to post bail.

Currently, we have situations where two people can be involved in committing a low-level crime, one who has money and one who doesn’t. Under the current system, the one who has money can get out of jail immediately and the other may have to spend days or weeks simply because they don’t have money. 

We can and should do better. 

Here are just a few other topics I would like to see the legislature tackle. 

• Reforming Kentucky’s tax code to eliminate the tax on non-profits. This was an unfortunate side effect of the tax bill passed last year, and while I didn’t particularly like the tax bill itself, the tax on non-profits needs to be removed.

• Moving state office elections to even number years, thus removing odd year elections in an attempt to increase voter turnout and save money.  

• Take a long look at sports gaming. I personally don’t bet on sporting events, but there is an appetite for it in our state and we are losing money to other states that offer it or will soon offer it. The revenue wouldn’t be the saving grace of the state’s pension fund or any of the state’s budget shortfalls, but it could help. 

• Improving animal protection laws. Kentucky is among the worst states in protecting animals from abuse, and that needs to change sooner rather than later. 

• Allowing convicted felons (excluding the obvious serious charges) to vote again. People who have been convicted of low-level felonies who have turned their lives around should have their rights restored once they have paid their debt to society.

This upcoming session will be 30 days, and that doesn’t leave a ton of time to tackle everything, but hopefully the legislature can go to work on at least a few of the ideas noted above. 

 

Other notes

• Congratulations to Taylor County’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, James Comer, and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, as well as Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles for their work in legalizing hemp nationwide. Hemp is going to be a major asset for this area and could be a major bright spot for the state’s economy. 

• Also a big congratulations to Frost-Arnett and the local and state officials who made their recently announced expansion a possibility. Any time a business expansion is expected to result in 135 full-time jobs, it is big news for the community and if all goes as planned, this should be a major boost for Taylor and surrounding counties.