This week at the State Capitol
FRANKFORT — As the 2008 session of the Kentucky Legislature passed its midpoint this week, three of the big-ticket, big-headlines issues of this session were in plain view:· The budget was being grappled with in subcommittees that will make recommendations to the full House Appropriations and Revenue Committee for its budget bill soon.
· The casino gambling amendment campaigned upon and proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear was is in committee and being tweaked, though no vote was taken and its final form is uncertain.
· And finally this week, Beshear unveiled his own plan to rescue the state-employee pension system from a $20 billion shortfall and likely insolvency by the year 2022.
The governor’s pension proposal envisions that future state employees and teachers be required to contribute more to their retirement than current workers. New state employees would also have to work longer before qualifying for benefits, although teachers would not.
In addition, the annual cost-of-living adjustment for current and future retirees would be fixed at 1.5 percent, rather than tied to the national inflation rate. In recent years, state retirees have enjoyed COLAs in the 3-percent range, based on increases in the Consumer Price Index.
The proposal delays till at least 2010 any state increase in its contribution to the pension fund. The two-year budget proposed by Beshear keeps that contribution at its current level, a freeze the administration says is necessary because of the state’s bleak revenue picture.
The state pension systems include about 300,000 current and retired state employees.
Meanwhile, a House task force formed specifically to study casino gambling in Kentucky voted this week to recommend an amendment to the state constitution — subject to voter approval — that allows only up to nine casinos in Kentucky, rather than the 12 Beshear had called for. The task force plan did not guarantee any casino licenses for the state’s racetracks, as Beshear and many other supporters had wanted.
Subsequently, the House Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee took up the recommendation, and amendments were proposed specifying that tracks get up to five of the nine licenses. The committee adjourned without taking action on either the amendments or the bill, although the proposal remains very much alive.
Beshear’s original proposal specified that up to seven casinos could be operated by racetracks, in addition to five free-standing ones whose licenses would be put up for bid. The administration has projected casino gambling in Kentucky would generate about $600 million in tax and licensing revenues annually.
As the budget review process continued in House subcommittees this week, several hundred students from the state’s eight public universities rallied in the Capitol Rotunda against some of the more dramatic cuts the governor proposed in his budget — the 12 percent reduction in funding for higher education, cuts totaling $300 million over two years.
The students expressed concerns about possible dramatic tuition hikes resulting from those cuts, as well as anxieties about losing a portion of their state merit scholarship money. Beshear has proposed a $14 million reduction the Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) funding. KEES awards are based on merit.
Meanwhile this week, the halfway point of the 60-day session saw the first bill to pass both chambers being sent to the governor for his signature. House Bill 168 will give returning servicemen and -women a 90-day grace period to renew their expired Kentucky driver’s licenses. The bill came in response to reports of soldiers coming home from overseas duty only to be ticketed for driving on an expired license soon after.
The General Assembly has a number of ways for citizens to stay informed about legislative activities during the session. They can visit the Legislative Research Commission website at www.lrc.ky.gov or call several toll-free numbers:
· The Bill Status Line: 866-840-2835.
· The Calendar Line (for meeting schedules): 800-633-9650.
· The Message Line (to leave a message for an individual legislator): 800-372-7181.