By Terri Clark
The Ashland Beacon
Frankfort –Two words sum up this year’s legislative session to date - “Stay tuned.”
With only four working days remaining, the General Assembly has a LONG list of bills still awaiting a final decision.
I did not like this approach as a constituent or candidate. I really don’t like it as a legislator.
It makes it much more difficult for legislators and the public to offer meaningful input on laws that would have an impact on Kentucky for years to come. We all have to demand better from our government, but until that happens, here is a scorecard of some of the more prominent bills still in play this year.
Generating the most headlines are bills focused on education. Teachers have again been descending on the Capitol to be watchdogs for public education. Most of their concern is focused on four bills in particular.
The first, House Bill 525, would significantly alter how the board of trustees is selected for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS). Teachers have long had the authority to nominate seven of the 11 trustees, but that would effectively drop to two under this bill. Most of the remaining nominations would be made by education-oriented organizations.
KTRS is an outstanding retirement system that stands alongside some of the best in the country and has been working well, so this effort seems to be a solution in search of a problem. HB 525 had yet to clear the House as we left Frankfort Thursday. If passed this week, it would still have to pass the Senate, so its chances of becoming law are increasingly unlikely, but not impossible.
The same can be said of House Bill 205, which also has not been considered by the entire House, yet. It would authorize up to $25 million in dollar for dollar tax credits annually for those who donate to private schools to boost scholarships for those who otherwise cannot afford tuition.
There are significant constitutional concerns about this legislation, and I do not think we can afford it at a time when the current two-year budget does not contain even a single dollar for new textbooks or professional development for teachers. This year’s bipartisan school-safety bill is wholly unfunded and would also better benefit from this money than private schools.
Senate Bill 250 is an educational bill that only applies to Jefferson County Public Schools. It has several provisions, but the one drawing the most scrutiny would give the district’s superintendent much more authority should he or she not agree with the principal hired by a school-based decision-making school council. Opponents argue this bill undermines a practice that has worked well for nearly 30 years, and it could lay the foundation to extend this new power to every superintendent.
Those three bills are still pending, but the fourth affecting educators – Senate Bill 8 – was sent to the Governor Thursday. This bill changes who serves on the tribunal system that handles the appeal process when a teacher is fired. I believe this bill is a legislative overreach and, like Senate Bill 250 and House Bill 525, fixes something that isn’t broken.
At the postsecondary level, House Bill 358 would give our public regional universities a chance to “cash” out of the Kentucky Employee Retirement System and pay off their current liabilities over the next 25 years. Current employees can remain in the state retirement system, but newly hired ones would not have that option. It is worth noting that this has no impact on university employees paying into the state’s hazardous-duty and teacher retirement systems.
Although odd-year legislative sessions are not traditionally focused on the budget, two bills being written by legislative leaders deal directly with state spending.
House Bill 354 would, among other things, fix last year’s tax overhaul so that nonprofit organizations would get back many if not all of the exemptions they lost. While I continue to advocate for comprehensive tax reform, I do support helping the nonprofit organizations who suffered unintended consequences from the 2018 tax reform. The problem with HB 354 are the other tax “sweeteners” being added during the process that only benefit a connected few and not the state as a whole. In addition to this fix, House Bill 58 would correct the error from last year that lowered retired teachers tax-exempt income from $41,100 to $31,100. This $10,000 increase in taxable income is an amount those living on a fixed income cannot easily absorb. I support correcting this unintended tax increase to retired teachers from last year. Yet another reason I advocate for comprehensive tax reform verses the piece milling that requires immediate correction upon passage.
In the end, these and the related House Bill 268 – which opens the budget for other projects – could turn out to be quite consequential. As the House, but not the Senate, passed it, House Bill 268 would authorize a needed round of renovations at our state parks and give our quasi-government agencies and regional public universities another year’s reprieve from having to pay a steep increase in their public-retirement costs.
Two other bills before the General Assembly this year that cleared a House committee, but face a more difficult road in becoming law, are HB 136 and HB 522 - both which through their debate has helped raise needed awareness.
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 136, which seeks to legalize medical marijuana, putting Kentucky in line with more than 30 other states that have taken similar or more far-reaching steps. It is doubtful that this bill will make it to the House floor for debate and a vote, but passing a committee was monumental for this legislation.
On Thursday, House Speaker David Osborne and House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins advocated for House Bill 522, which would call for automatic recounts in extremely close elections involving candidates running for Congress, constitutional offices like Governor and the General Assembly. This would help us avoid situations like the House legislative challenge this year in the close race won by state Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro. The election contest his opponent requested dominated much of the House’s time during the session’s first weeks.