While one local lawmaker gets a chance next month to work on his first state budget, the other will be helping craft his final two-year spending plan for Kentucky.
The 2020 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly begins next Tuesday and is scheduled to adjourn April 15. Legislators will have 60 working days to approve a biennial budget. Amid that task, they will also tackle a number of key issues like criminal justice reform, school safety, tax reform, relief for an ailing pension system, education and funding transportation needs across the commonwealth.
For the last three years, the Republican agenda has advanced in Frankfort with little opposition, as the GOP controlled both chambers of the legislative branch and the executive branch. As the state’s new governor, however, Andy Beshear now gives Democrats the say in Kentucky’s future they have lacked since the 2016 session.
“It’s going to be an interesting year to work out a few differences between the governor and lawmakers,” said 1st District Sen. Stan Humphries, a Cadiz Republican who represents Lyon County in the upper chamber.
Humphries, who plans to step away from the Capitol at the end of his second term late next year, is eager to cooperate with the new governor across the party aisle. Yet he does have concerns about some of the pledges Beshear made during his run for office, like giving Kentucky teachers a $2,000 raise.
“He’s made some campaign promises to fulfill,” the Senator said.
Currently operating under a $36.6 billion spending plan, the new governor is looking at a $600 million budget hole as projected by Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Chris McDaniel. Continuing pension, Medicaid and education obligations will lead to tough choices in other areas of need, said Humphries, who is vice chairman of the powerful committee.
“We need to try to stop digging and find a way to backfill these holes with additional revenue,” he said. “We need to find a way to have more people paying into the system.”
Some ideas lawmakers are looking at to improve revenue include tax reform, moving further toward a consumer-based tax system; expanded gaming, which has only lukewarm support from legislators; and incentives for economic growth, something Humphries believes western Kentucky is in bad need of.
New revenue will be the only way to cover more of the state’s needs, including about $100 million in projected costs to help the Kentucky’s 172 school districts achieve the mandates of last year’s Senate Bill 1, a measure to improve school safety.
“We have a commitment to fund that to the best of our ability,” Humphries said.
Rep. Chris Freeland, a Republican entering his first budget session after being elected in 2018 to represent Lyon County and the 6th House District, believes addressing unfunded pension obligations needs to be a top statewide priority for lawmakers. But finding a way to do that without crippling cities, counties and government entities like public health departments with higher contributions to the retirement system will be tricky.
“The last two years, the state has done a good job budget-wise,” he said, pointing to a surplus. “Most of that has gone back into the pension system.”
Locally, the addition of a family court judge for the 56th Judicial Circuit that includes Lyon County is a key issue. Currently, the four-county circuit is burdened with the fifth highest caseload in the state. Separating family court matters from the docket of Judge C.A. Woodall III would free the jurist to more quickly dispense of criminal cases. It would also help families through some of their most difficult moments.
“It’s been a great asset for our county,” said Freeland, who lives in Marshall County, where a family court has already been established. “It makes it an overall better process for families.”
The eight-plus months it takes to close criminal cases in Lyon County is costing county taxpayers dearly, adding up to about $1,000 to house a local inmate for a month. Judge-Executive Wade White projects housing expenses to be between $400,000 and $500,000 in the current fiscal year. That growing cost is why he has lobbied for judicial relief, which comes in part next month through temporary help from District Judge James R. Redd III. Redd has been designated help with circuit court cases.
“As far as this session, I’m not sure,” Freeland said of the possibility of creating a permanent family court judge. “(White and local officials) have already established the need, if we can just find the money.”
If not created and funded in next year’s session, it would be 2022 before lawmakers could next address it.
Freeland believes judicial reform in general could also relieve the housing burden on taxpayers.
“Lyon County voters are sick of paying $500,000 to house inmates, most of which is tied to the drug epidemic,” he said.
In other areas, Freeland hopes to cut Medicaid costs by expelling recipients on Kentucky’s dime who do not even live in the state. He is also for sensible tax reform and calls economic development one of his priorities.
“That is a big subject and not one that always has quick results,” he said, pointing to a need locally and across rural portions of commonwealth to grow the available workforce, a problem for employers who may be considering those areas.
And Freeland wants to address the state’s swelling transportation needs, even if it means a gas tax increase.
The idea 10-cent increase in the levy has been floated to help offset reduced revenue due to more fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars that pay nothing toward roads. Freeland is not sure how motorists will receive a higher gas tax, but finding a way to make electric car owners pay for the miles they put on highways will be considered, he assures.
Freeland’s personal goals for the session include two bills he has pre-filed — one to help military families and another to protect victims of crime.
Bill Request 976 would allow a student who attends an out-of-state high school due to a parent’s military transfer to earn a Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarships (KEES) award for time spent in Kentucky schools. The money could be used only to attend a public university or college in Kentucky.
BR 965 would exclude from the Open Records Act gruesome photographs or videos of persons prepared, owned, used, possessed or retained by public agencies. The measure has been dubbed the Bailey Holt-Preston Cope Victims Privacy Act in honor of the two fatalities in the 2018 Marshall County High School shooting.
As a member of the media through ownership in Freeland Broadcasting, the first-term lawmaker is sensitive to First Amendment rights.
The bill would apply to only images used in court cases and would not pertain to publication or posting of those captured by private individuals using their own cameras.