By Rep. Mike Denham
FRANKFORT – With an eye on the dwindling days left in this year’s legislative session, the Kentucky House moved virtually all of its top priorities a step forward last week and should have most sent to the Senate by early this week.
Among that group of bills is our chamber’s proposal to tackle Kentucky’s heroin epidemic, which has sky-rocketed in recent years. In short, House Bill 213 re-dedicates some savings from criminal justice reforms enacted in 2011 and uses that money to ramp up treatment options while also significantly increasing the penalties on the traffickers bringing large quantities of the drug into our communities.
Other provisions in the bill call for Good Samaritan protections, so people will be more likely to report overdoses if they know they themselves will not be charged with drug possession; greater use of Naloxone, a miracle drug that can reverse overdoses; local option for needle-exchange programs, if communities wish to go that route to reduce transmission of blood-borne diseases and accidental needle sticks among law enforcement; and a greater focus on reducing the number of babies born addicted.
There is a growing expectation that the House and Senate can find common ground on this issue, and while the budget is normally not “opened” during odd-year legislative sessions, there is also reason to believe we can find money now to begin these programs immediately. I was proud to be part of the small working group that wrote this legislation.
A day before that bill passed, the House unanimously supported another with ties to the criminal justice system. Under House Bill 8, the state would streamline how people obtain civil protective orders while including three new groups in the process: those who have been stalked or sexually assaulted and those who have been hurt by someone they have been dating.
Kentucky is one of just four states that does not allow victims of dating violence to obtain a domestic violence order. They can only be granted one if they have been married to or lived with their abuser or they have a child in common. That leaves out many young adults and even widowed senior citizens.
More than half the states, meanwhile, allow victims of sexual assault to obtain a protective order, and 35 do the same for those being stalked. The need to take these steps becomes even more obvious when considering that Kentucky’s law enforcement is required under federal law to honor protective orders issued by other states. That means those living here temporarily, such as college students, may be better protected than our own citizens.
Two other bills approved by the House on Thursday would give voters a chance in November 2016 to modify our constitution if these bills clear the Senate.
The first of those, House Bill 1, would add Kentucky to the list of 37 states that already have a local-option sales tax.
This measure has wide, bipartisan support and the backing of every living Kentucky governor and such organizations as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and the mayors of Lexington and Louisville. Recent statewide polling shows more than half of Kentuckians favor this as well.
If this amendment is ultimately adopted, communities would then have the option to vote on whether to add up to a penny on their local sales tax to pay for a project they choose. These could be as large as an arena or as small as a swimming pool or police station. Once the project is paid for, the additional sales tax levy would end.
Under the other constitutional amendment, House Bill 70, voters could make it possible to automatically restore voting rights to most felons after they have completed all aspects of their sentence, something most states already do. If Kentucky joins them, those convicted of murder, sex-based crimes or bribery in an election would continue to be excluded.
As those bills await resolution in the Senate, the House’s budget committee signed off on another last week that has a lot of potential for our teachers and their retirees.
It would authorize a $3.3 billion bond for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System in an effort to significantly reduce that program’s long-term liability while complementing the pension work the General Assembly did in 2013 and last year for state employees and their retirees.
While the bond is certainly large, there is reason to believe this could be an appropriate move, since interest rates are near historic lows and KTRS’ short- and long-term investment returns have been much higher. Doing something like this would also significantly reduce the otherwise steep funding increases KTRS is projected to need in the years ahead. The agency first recommended this plan late last year and said that the annual bond payments could be covered in part by redirecting state money that it is already receiving, negating the impact on the budget’s bottom line.
On Wednesday this week, the legislative session will cross the halfway point, so time is drawing short to let me know your thoughts on any of these issues.