State agenda is already full

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By Tom McKee

When the General Assembly meets in odd-numbered years, it has a much different schedule than it does in those ending in an even number.
The meeting time is 30 rather than 60 days, and the first four of those are set aside just to elect legislative leaders and appoint members to committees.  The bulk of our work doesn’t begin until early February, and it effectively ends a little more than a month later.
That tightened timeframe means our schedule fills up quickly, and that was certainly the case last week when my legislative colleagues and I returned to the Capitol on Tuesday.
By the time we had wrapped up our first week of work on Friday, two major priorities were on their way to the state Senate, where they are expected to be received favorably.
On Thursday, the House voted overwhelmingly for legislation that would give many of our public four-year universities the ability to use their own revenue to build a wide array of new or updated facilities.   A significant portion of these projects, which top $360 million, will take place at the University of Kentucky, including major upgrades at Commonwealth Stadium.  Combined, these projects are expected to generate about 5,000 jobs.
On Friday, the House put its near-unanimous support behind House Bill 1, which will increase transparency and accountability among our special taxing districts.  They range from public utilities, libraries, airports to volunteer fire departments.
I am co-sponsoring this bill because it is important that the public be able to see how its tax dollars are being spent, no matter where that may be.  At the same time, it’s important to point out that this bill does not interfere with the day-to-day work these districts do for us.  In fact, the bill’s main sponsor, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, praised their contributions.  I, too, thank the many citizens who have given their time to serve on our special district boards.
According to the auditor’s office, which began compiling a comprehensive list last year, there are more than 1,200 special districts across the state, and they oversee more than $2 billion worth of services annually.  That’s about how much the state provides to our elementary and secondary schools.
This bill also clarifies a lot of often-confusing rules that affect the districts.  The auditor’s office was able to identify more than 1,000 state statutes that cover this area, with some dating back more than a century.  This bill streamlines that, and it ensures that those overseeing the districts fall under the same local ethics laws that other officials in their community have long followed.
When Gov. Steve Beshear addressed the General Assembly on Wednesday as part of his annual State the Commonwealth address, he listed several other bills he hopes can pass this year.
The biggest challenge is finding a way to put our public retirement systems on a more sustainable path without putting an undue burden on those who depend on it or on the taxpayer.  This issue cannot wait another year to be acted upon.
He pointed out that the state has had some great successes in recent months.  For example, our unemployment rate has declined by a fourth in the last two years, and our auto industry produced more than one million vehicles last year, the most since 2007.  Our schools, meanwhile, recently placed 10th among the states in “Education Week,” a national publication that takes an annual look at school progress.  That’s up from 34th just two years ago.
Some of Governor Beshear’s priorities include raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 and approving a package of bills focusing on our younger citizens.  These would toughen the laws on texting while driving, close a loophole in the state’s booster seat law and crack down on sexual predators who try to take advantage of children on the internet.
As I mentioned, there are many issues competing for the General Assembly’s attention, and the clock is ticking fast.  A lot of you have already contacted me about your thoughts or concerns, and I really appreciate that.  If you would like to do the same, or if you have a young student who would like to be a legislative page, please let me know.  Being a page is a rewarding experience for those wanting to see the General Assembly in action.
My address is Room 332B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.  My email address is Tom.McKee@lrc.ky.gov.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181.  For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.  The website to see the actual texts of bills and other legislative information, meanwhile, can be found at www.lrc.ky.gov.