As the General Assembly prepares for the final third of the 2011 Regular Session, it’s a good time to step back and see what has taken place.
The Kentucky House of Representatives has approved what I think are some sensible moves forward for the Commonwealth. In some of the higher profile bills, we have worked to increase the high school dropout age from 16 to 18; we are trying to crack down on convicted drunk drivers to keep them from drinking and driving again; and we have attempted to close what would be a very sizeable gap in Medicaid if nothing is done.
Last Thursday, we added to that list a bill that has the potential to be one of the session’s most substantial accomplishments and one of the biggest updates of our criminal laws in decades.
This bill came together after an influential group of leaders with ties to the judicial system came together last year to see what could be done to lower what was the nation’s fastest-growing prison population in 2007. We now have about 21,000 people behind bars, at a cost of about $440 million a year, and our counties spend about $140 million more on their jails.
A non-profit organization known as the Pew Center on the States offered considerable help in getting this legislation written. It has worked in such states as Texas to find ways to lower corrections costs while improving public safety.
In short, this bill puts much more emphasis on treating non-violent, low-level drug users while providing some reasonable changes to non-criminal violations of probation and parole. These two areas have been the key drivers behind the growth in our prison population. If this bill becomes law, it would cut about 10 percent from our corrections costs, with about half of that plowed back into the system for treatment and needed staff and equipment.
There have been quite a few other bills to make it through the House this session that deserve mention.
For example, my colleagues and I are seeking to ban a relatively new, and dangerous, synthetic drug that is being sold as such things as bath salts and insecticide to hide its true intent. The reality is that this mind-altering drug is sending people to the emergency room, and Kentucky unfortunately appears to be among the leading states in this trend.
Another bill would provide more oversight for contractors who help homes, schools and businesses remove radon, a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring gas that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the country. We want to make sure that those who are hired to install radon-removal systems do professional work.
Quite a few bills to make it through the House this legislative session would help our veterans and those still serving.
One would let our men and women in uniform fish or hunt without a license on military property owned by the state, while another would give some sensible leniency to those on active duty who might miss professional requirements in their non-military job.
Another bill would create an “I Support Veterans” license plate that anyone could purchase to show their support.
On Thursday, one of my bills – House Bill 433 – made it through committee and should be voted on soon by the full chamber. It would create a working group in the Energy and Environment Cabinet on waste tires, in an effort to keep these tires from becoming a nuisance and a potential health hazard.
This legislation also calls on retailers of new tires to give customers information on how to dispose the tire when it is no longer needed.
During a meeting last week of the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee, which I oversee as chairman, we were glad to hear from agricultural studies students from Eastern Kentucky University. I also had the pleasure to meet with some local farmers and County Extension Agent Gary Carter. I always appreciate it when local citizens are able to make it over to Frankfort.
Less than two weeks remain this legislative session, so time is drawing short if you would like to contact me with your thoughts or concerns. If you would like to write, my address is Room 332B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.