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human trafficking

Interim Meeting 1

With the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex serving as host, the General Assembly’s Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary traveled to the region on Friday for its first meeting following this year’s legislative session.

The Homestretch

The final two days of the 2013 Regular Session are upon us, and despite the good work that has been accomplished over the course of the 30-day "short" session, pension help looms large. The debate continues between whether the pension payment can be made within the context of the budget we have or the budget we'll write next year without raising taxes or expanding gaming revenue, or whether some combination of new tax and gaming revenue will be needed. While I certainly believe the former, time will tell whether the General Assembly as a whole can reach that conclusion. I will continue to fight for public pension solvency and for the funds to be fully paid their due, without raising taxes or expanding gaming. The days of robbing from Peter to pay Paul must come to an end. I do not expect any significant pieces of legislation to crop up that haven't already been on the radar for some time. Most recently, HB279, the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act, which was vetoed last Friday by the Governor is back in the hands of the General Assembly for a possible veto override. The Senate leadership has already pledged to override the veto and I will certainly add my own YES vote to the tally that was 29-strong when we passed it the first time. However, as the bill originated in the House, the action to override the veto must also begin in the House. 82 Representatives voted for the measure a few weeks ago - more than enough to override the veto. I hope that all 82 demonstrate their desire for the bill to become law and move for the veto override vote to be taken.

As we wind down I have already begun to prepare for a busy interim period (the months between legislative sessions). The work of the General Assembly continues as joint committees begin studying issues to be taken up during the next legislative session. While I have not yet participated in interim committee work, its clear that the meetings are of immense value. Much of learning, studying and compromise that happens in Frankfort takes place during the interim. Senators and Representatives can hear from folks about various topics, ask questions, take meetings with stakeholders (on any or all sides of an issue) and hammer out compromise legislation. Several of the landmark pieces passed this session are the product of such teamwork and study over the interim, including HB7, the university bonding bill, HB3, the human trafficking bill with a "safe harbor" provision, and HB217, the adjustments to 2012's "pill mill" bill. All three were enormous pieces of legislation that needed many months of discussion and debate to get just right. All three also passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the lower and upper chamber. If issues were left from last year's adjournment and the General Assembly took them back up when we gaveled in a year later there would be little hope for achieving as much progress.

In the 2013 interim I plan on focusing my effort toward the Juvenile Code Reform task force, which I co-chair with my friend and hometown colleague Rep. John Tilley. John and I have already begun preparing for the task force's work, including meeting with an outside nonprofit foundation who has assisted other jurisdictions in updating their juvenile code. The work of this task force is critical in shaping the legislation that directly impacts Kentucky's children. We have a chance to create a system that punishes when necessary, but also saves and redirects young lives on a path that hopefully doesn't lead to incarceration as an adult.

The Joint Committee on Judiciary will also be meeting during the interim and the schedule for those meetings is being finalized as I type. The agenda has not been finalized but may cover topics from the death penalty and expungements to penal code reforms, and will also benefit from the work of the Juvenile Code Task Force. I look forward to this work, but certainly not because I enjoy being away from home. What I look forward to is the idea of meaningful progress in policy areas where much work is needed for the benefit for all Kentuckians.

I want to accomplish as much as possible over the interim so that we can hit the ground running in January when the Senate resumes its work for the 2014 Regular Session. The value of our interim work is underscored further by the reminder that we'll have a budget to pass in 2014 and (barring an unforeseen change of plans in the Senate in these last two days) redistricting - two issues that are almost certainly going to monopolize our time. I don't want the marquee troubles to drown out the good work we can be getting done.

Week In Review - March 8

20130308-211035.jpg FRANKFORT – Even as many schools closed across the commonwealth due to snow, Frankfort shrugged off the white stuff and continued with our work. After this week, only a few days remain of the 2013 Session.

A number of bills have come out of the Senate this session to address different educational issues in Kentucky. We all agree that delivering a quality education is critical for Kentucky’s youth. Further, I believe we can all agree that teachers and administrators should be equipped with the tools and options to provide such an education. The Commonwealth has in place a process for improving struggling schools. When the state Department of Education cites a school for being persistently low-achieving, there are several options the school board can choose from such as restaffing, allowing an outside management company to lead a turnaround effort, or even closing. Senate Bill 176 will add another option: the local school board can allow a petition to convert the school to a charter school. Please keep in mind that these are extreme measures for extreme situations. Unfortunately, the fact is that we have schools that are graduating only a small percentage of students. No one can deny that this is unacceptable and we must give parents, teachers, and communities every tool possible to make sure our kids are college or career ready. Anything less is a disservice to the students and the future of Kentucky.

I am also pleased that a bipartisan compromise has been achieved on the Governor’s drop-out bill. Senate Bill 97 allows local school districts to adopt a policy requiring students to stay in school until age 18, or graduation whichever comes first, with the understanding that they would have to offer an approved alternative education program that would help meet the needs of students most likely to drop out. Further, once 55% of school districts have programs in place, the rest of the state will come on board so that we can all work off the same page. With this bill, decisions are not made by a Frankfort bureaucrat and educators are better prepared to assist all students.

Human trafficking is a real problem in the United States with an estimated 300,000 citizens victimized, and tragically most of those are young children. Kentucky unfortunately has its share of cases, and we believe the number to be underreported for several reasons, including the lack of training for law enforcement to recognize trafficking for what it really is, and the lack of adequate protections for child victims. I was thankful to grant a hearing to, twice vote for, and speak on behalf of House Bill 3 yesterday in the Senate, which aims to address these issues. HB 3 contains a “safe-harbor” provision that allows child victims to be protected rather than incarcerated or prosecuted for engaging in criminal acts, which are sadly often sex related, against their will. The legislation also requires that law enforcement be trained to spot human trafficking, allows anyone to report suspected human trafficking to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the local prosecutor’s office or to local law enforcement, and allows law enforcement to seize real property of those convicted of human trafficking.

As we continue to advance in technology, and our young people are ever more equipped with web-connected smartphones, tablets and computers, we must be vigilant against online predators. The Attorney General’s office has a cybercrimes unit to investigate these predators, as does the Kentucky State Police. House Bill 39 gives the KSP the ability to issue an administrative subpoena to investigate claims of online child exploitation in Kentucky. This narrowly drafted subpoena power is necessary to protect those Kentuckians who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and provide the immediacy that is often necessary to intervene.

Two important anti-drug measures also passed. House Bill 217 is the General Assembly’s attempt to curb the unintended consequences of last year’s House Bill 1 which shut down pill mills across the state but also put undue regulatory burdens on doctors, nursing homes, hospitals and most importantly patients. The bill adjusts treatment protocols to allow medical professionals the flexibility they need to adequately treat patients without opening the floodgates for unscrupulous doctors. The bill was a successful compromise among many stakeholders, and had the support of leadership of the House and Senate, as well as the Governor. House Bill 8 is yet another bill geared to combat synthetic drugs. These drugs, which are designed to chemically mimic certain drugs and controlled substances such as marijuana and meth, are constantly evolving as bad actors continue to try to addict our young people. They may look harmless and be sold in innocuous packages of bath salts or incense but make no mistake; they are dangerous and often life-threatening.

Another bipartisan bill, House Bill 1, also passed which will provide much-needed transparency to special taxing districts. While there are many taxing districts that are acting appropriately to their mandate, there are unfortunately some that have abused the trust that the people have put in them. HB 1 adds accountability and transparency to these authorities’ finances by directing them to publish their financial statements online and provides for regular audits.

Finally, I was very happy to vote for House Bill 279, known as the Religious Freedom Act. This bill protects religious liberty from government overstepping its bounds. It is in reaction to a Kentucky Supreme Court decision from last year. HB 279 reaffirms the standard of “strict scrutiny” as the standard for religious freedom cases, and matches the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 which had nearly unanimous support in Congress.

As I write this, I remain hopeful that the House and the Senate can work out a compromise on Senate Bill 2, the commonsense public pension reform bill. The bill does not apply to teachers and does not impact current employees or retirees but it does put protections in place that save the system from insolvency without additional costs to the taxpayers. There are places to make cuts to state spending and borrowing without diminishing funds for critical needs like education or law enforcement. When I see no movement toward even discussing the savings by repealing or at least amending the prevailing wage laws in Kentucky, much less actually trying to do so, I become disgusted when funding for education is threatened. Even more upsetting to me is the idea that some of our elected leaders would rather pay for pensions out of the pockets of Kentucky’s poorest through expanded gaming, rather than sacrifice their sacred cows. We most certainly need to fully fund the pension system, but I refuse to do so in that way.

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