Lawmakers Get Mixed Grades for This Session
by John Gregory | 04/15/14 12:49 PM
On the eve of the final day of the legislative session, Kentucky Tonight gathered a panel to review the work of the General Assembly this year. Did lawmakers get a passing grade? Read on to find out.
The State Budget
Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, called the compromise budget plan devised by legislators "austere" because of additional cuts to state agencies that have already seen multiple reductions in recent years. In the face of limited revenues, Bailey said he was disappointed to see several powerful business interests receive tax breaks to be phased in over the next few years.
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dave Adkisson described the spending plan as "relatively responsible" but disagreed with the amount of debt it incurs. He said the ideal would be to limit debt to 6 percent of income, while the budget plan incurs a debt ratio of 6.7 percent.
Children and Education
"I'm still kind of stunned," joked Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "I don't think we've ever had a budget where there were more significant wins for kids." Brooks praised Gov. Steve Beshear, Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester), and House Speaker Greg Stumbo (D-Prestonsburg) for funding programs to improve oral health for children, providing financial aid for so-called kinship care (where children live with family members other than their parents), and expanding preschool programs for children from low-income homes. Brooks also commended lawmakers for passing a significant juvenile justice reform measure that is awaiting the governor's signature.
The panel was generally pleased with early childhood and K-12 education funding, although Jason Bailey said the moneys don't yet make up the ground lost in budget cuts dating back to 2008. Dave Adkisson noted the successful collaboration between education and business leaders to fight for more school funding. The group lamented the 1.5 percent reduction to spending on higher education.
Funding Teacher Pensions
Adkisson said the "dirty little secret in Frankfort" is funding for the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System (KTRS). He said legislators in both parties have failed to address shortfalls in KTRS because they've been more focused on financing the Kentucky Retirement System for state employees. Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, said KTRS already has about $11 billion in unfunded liabilities, which has left some Republican lawmakers questioning how the pension funds are managed.
Jason Bailey countered by noting the investment performance of KTRS has been in line with benchmarks set for the system. The bigger issue, according to Bailey, is that the state hasn't made its actuarially required contribution since 2009. Terry Brooks, himself a former teacher receiving a pension from the system, said new educators coming into the profession may have to adjust their expectations for the retirement packages they may be offered.
Business and labor groups made a significant push this session for legislation to create a framework for public-private partnerships, also called P3s. House Bill 407 hit a snag when Rep. Arnold Simpson (D-Covington) attached an amendment to the measure that would ban tolls on a new Ohio River bridge from Kentucky to Cincinnati. Gov. Beshear vetoed the measure last week, saying it was unwise to limit funding options for the bridge project. Others have voiced opposition to moving what otherwise would be public projects into the private sector without appropriate levels of transparency and accountability.
Dave Adkisson called HB 407 the biggest pro-jobs bill before this session of the General Assembly, and was disappointed by the veto. He expressed optimism that given the strong support for the P3 measure in both chambers that legislators may override the governor's rejection.
What Happened To…
- Tax reform: Jason Bailey, who served on the governor's tax reform commission, said he was dissatisfied with the tax overhaul plan the Beshear administration ultimately proposed. The plan presented to lawmakers was never formally introduced as legislation. Terry Brooks said the idea of "comprehensive tax reform" may simply be too big to tackle. Instead, he suggested legislators may need to pass smaller, incremental changes to the tax code so they can build momentum for larger reform over time.
- Statewide smoking ban: "It didn't pass because it's a bad idea," Jim Waters said. He contends it makes no sense for government to tell private property owners how to regulate a legal activity on their premises. The Chamber of Commerce's Dave Adkisson, who supports a statewide ban, said he understands that philosophical argument, but argued that a state with so many health problems needs to limit smoking.
- Expanded gaming: Despite significant support from the governor and some business interests, legislation to allow for more gambling never advanced out of committee. Adkisson said the issue will likely make return in later sessions, but Waters theorized that gambling advocates need to develop a clearer message for how the state would benefit from gaming.
Jason Bailey said lawmakers get credit for passing a budget, but they otherwise didn't accomplish much. His gave a C grade. Terry Brooks said Beshear, Stivers and Stumbo get an A+ for what they did for children and families. Dave Adkisson gave legislators an "incomplete" grade. And Jim Waters said General Assembly gets a C-minus.
Watch the full Kentucky Tonight program, and see what the group had to say about medical review panels, the telecommunications bill, funding to renovate Rupp Arena, and voting rights for felons.