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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.

Please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 toll-free or you can see the action yourself by bookmarking this site, or visiting the General Assembly's site at www.lrc.ky.gov.

Week In Review - March 1

FRANKFORT – With only eight legislative days left, the 2013 General Assembly Session has come to a major turning point. As I have reported in the past, Kentucky faces an immense unfunded liability in our public employee pension system. Senate Bill 2, a product of a bipartisan, bicameral task force that heard from stakeholders, retirement experts, and independent researchers, was drafted to protect tax-payers as well as current employees’ and retirees’ retirement from insolvency, passed the Senate in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. (SB 2 does not apply to teachers’ retirement and would not impact pensions for current employees and retirees.) The House of Representatives removed any structural changes to the strained system and proposed to pay for it with revenues from expanded lottery sales, Keno, and Instant Racing instead of discussing this part during the normal budget process of 2014. They refuse to discuss the bill with us in conference committee if we don’t accept their flawed financial plan. The time for gotcha politics is over; we must have a sober discussion about this very important issue. Bipartisan task forces have worked before on unemployment insurance and corrections reform. The Senate is still working and we want bipartisan consensus. Structural changes can be made now to the pension system that will strengthen the entire fund. We are hopeful that the House Leadership will come to the table on this issue that affects all Kentuckians. The Senate is also doing what we can to put our own house in order. Senate Bill 7 seeks to close the loophole in the state retirement system that had allowed some legislators to significantly increase their state pensions. Incidentally, Senate Bill 2 directs that any new legislators must be in the regular state employee system. Both these bills together work to make sure that state employees are treated similarly whether you work in the Senate or on a state road.

In other news, the Senate continued working on other bills involving elections, gun rights, and education.  Voting is at the foundation of our democracy.  Candidates come and go, but the process by which we elect our leaders lives on and must be protected.  While each vote cast is equal, those cast by America's bravest seem to be more sacred.  Generations of men and women serving on battle lines across the globe have protected our freedom to vote, yet their own votes are delayed and possibly uncounted. Senate Bill 1, which I co-sponsored, takes a substantial step toward making the voting process easier for military and those Kentuckians living abroad.  Electronically transmitting the ballot gets the ballot in the hands of those voters earlier so it can be filled out and returned on a timely basis. The bill also establishes a group to study the feasibility and security of electronically returning the ballots, which is a goal I hope we can achieve soon. Right now, the county clerks are concerned that the integrity of the ballot and the anonymity of the voter may be compromised if transmitted via email, fax or the web.

Senate Bill 55 will move the election date of constitutional officers to presidential election years. This has two benefits: it greatly increases voter participation because more people vote in presidential years and it has the bonus attribute of saving both local and state governments millions statewide by not having to hold off-year elections.

We also passed two bills protecting the right to bear arms.  Senate Bill 129 protects our Second Amendment rights by clarifying that the federal government cannot encroach on Kentuckians’ right to bear arms by limiting the reach of new federal regulations. This bill also takes a stand for our rights under the Tenth Amendment which states, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  Senate Bill 150 makes it easier to obtain a concealed-carry license by eliminating the residency requirement.  Applicants seeking the license must still go thought the required training course on firearm safety and related statutes.

We have several programs in place to help kids who may not necessarily learn in the traditional manner or need more help than their peers to understand their lessons. But there are also students who are motivated and prepared enough to want to continue pushing themselves and these children need our support too. Senate Bill 61 would allow for early graduation for qualified students who meet set requirements.  Senate Bill 64, sponsored by Sen. Stan Humphries, rewards students who work to graduate early by allowing them to access their full KEES funding.

Finally, I passed House Bill 8 and House Bill 9 from my Judiciary Committee this week. Both bills, sponsored by Rep. Tilley, are good pieces of legislation I was glad to advance. HB 9 provides legal protections to people trying to escape from violent relationships; HB 8 continues Kentucky's great work toward fighting synthetic drugs which continue to plague our communities.

We are entering the time period in Session when the House and the Senate will start discussing differences on bills that have passed both chambers. There is still time to contact me with any concerns or questions or comments. You can do so by leaving a message for me or any legislator toll free at 1-800-372-7181, by calling my Frankfort office directly at (502) 564-8100, or by emailing me here.  By logging on the General Assembly's website you can read the bills and see our schedules.  I also encourage you to bookmark this site and follow me on Twitter @KyWhitney!