Issues to watch in the 2016 legislative session

01/05/2016 11:37 AM

Tuesday marks the first day of the 60 -day long-session for the General Assembly — a process that will take the better part of four months — and the issues facing legislators are many.

With the legislature still split there will be likely a standstill on the ideological issues of school choice, minimum wage increases and tort reforms, but there will be a series of issues where compromise is likely.

Developing a spending plan

The main task before the General Assembly is crafting a two-year $20 billion general fund budget. For the first time in eight years lawmakers will go through the process with a new governor.

Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, will announce his budget initiatives in a live address from the House chambers on Tuesday, January 26, at 7:00 p.m. eastern time. Bevin has indicated that the address will contain many of the pitches he made on the campaign trail and during his inauguration address.

Plummeting pensions

Part of the budget process will be spent deciding how to put Kentucky’s retirement plans for teachers and state workers back on solid financial footing.

The Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System is seeking nearly one billion dollars in funding for the upcoming session with their funded status sitting at 55.3 percent and unfunded liabilities sitting at $13.9 billion. Expect the pension issue to be contentious as lawmakers’ debate bonding debt to finance an increase to contribution payments for teachers, and discuss potential changes to benefits.

Meanwhile, the funding situation for one of the Kentucky Retirement Systems pension plans is among the worst funded in the nation.

The Kentucky Employees Retirement System non-hazardous pension funded ratio dropped from 19 percent to 17.7 percent at the end of 2015, and the State Police Retirement System’s funded status dropped from 33.8 percent to 31.4 percent.

Retirees are calling on lawmakers to fully fund required contributions and push additional revenue towards the pension plan to inflate the funded status and ensure the viability of their earned retirements.

Criminal justice reforms

One of the largest expenditures in a state budget is spent on corrections. In the 2014 – 2016 budget nearly 11 percent of the $20.3 billion general fund expenditures went towards corrections only outpacing education and healthcare in spending.

Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan is seeking reforms within the criminal justice system which could save the commonwealth cash in the budget cycle by reclassifying low-level misdemeanors to violations, allowing jailers to provide “good-time” credit, reducing low level felonies to misdemeanors and others.

Monahan says the reforms will save the state cash while reducing the crime rate.

Funding the state police crime lab

Lawmakers were stunned to find out that 3,090 rape kits are untested in the state of Kentucky. The testing of those kits will be funded via grants, but the underlying issue remains unaddressed — funding for the crime lab.

Advocates with the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs is seeking additional funding for the Kentucky State Police Forensic Laboratory — which handles more than just untested rape kits — they also process DNA for robbery and murder investigations.

An audit of the kits and 14 stakeholder meetings conducted by former Auditor Adam Edelen revealed a need of $5 million dollars from the state legislature for the first year in the legislative session, and $2 million a year in recurring costs to ensure no back log of rape kits comes back in Kentucky.

Felon voting and expungement

The perennial issues of felon voting rights and expungement for non-violent felons return with a somewhat more receptive legislature.

Under proposed legislation there will not be automatic expungement for those who complete their sentences for nonviolent, non-sexual Class D convictions. A bill which has passed the House in recent sessions stipulates that felons would be eligible for expungement five years after the completion of their sentences. Defendants would be required to petition the court to have the felony removed from their public criminal record, and prosecutors and victims would be notified of the court hearing before the felony conviction is stricken from their public record.

The issue has backing with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican Party Chairman Mac Brown backing the concept and House Democratic leaders.

Lawmakers will also discuss restoring voting rights to non-violent felons, an issue many thought had been resolved with an executive order from Gov. Steve Beshear. Bevin rescinded the order which allowed non-violent felons to have their rights to vote and hold office restored upon completing their sentences.

Bevin said that he supports the restoration of rights, but said it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people of Kentucky — which could mean a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but first it must pass the General Assembly with a constitutional majority.

Drug policy

It’s become commonplace for each session to be spent in part dealing with the latest drug scourge.

This session will be another revamp of synthetic drugs — in recent years the state has cracked down on “bath salts” and “Ivory Wave” this time they’ll be focused on “flakka” and others.

The state has been caught playing a game of whack-a-mole in recent years as synthetic drug manufacturers tweak formulas as the state defines their compositions in statute.

Acknowledging how current statutes are set up Attorney General Andy Beshear told Pure Politics on the campaign trail that the state needs to craft legislation that will allow authorities to arrest and jail dealers of all synthetic drugs by targeting the effect of the drug and not the composition.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@charter.com.

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