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Higdon: General Assembly votes to override two dozen of Gov. Beshear’s vetos

By JIMMY HIGDON
14th District State Senator

Friday, April 2, 2021 — The final two days of this year’s 30-day legislative session required the burning of the midnight oil. Before adjourning sine die, the legislative process also required a lot of “hurry up and wait.” However, I did enjoy the brief windows of opportunity to enjoy the pleasant weather on my trips from my legislative office to the Senate Chamber in the Capitol. After a rough stretch of weather, I hope you were able to enjoy some of the sunshine and warmth as well. As I departed from the Capitol in the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 31, I left with a sense of pride for having the honor to represent you in Frankfort. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your State Senator.

SEN. JIMMY HIGDON

On that note, I have significant updates to provide you on the state budget. The General Assembly approved multiple beneficial appropriations in the final two days of the session. Some of this is the result of funding provided through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. It took some time to get information on the ways the state is authorized to allocate these funds. Fortunately, we were able to appropriate around $1.3 billion of those funds before the session’s close. New expenditures in the state budget, perhaps most notably, included $140 million to fund all-day kindergarten. This funding is evidence of the General Assembly’s commitment to education.

You may be thinking, “students are already attending all-day kindergarten.” You are correct. Currently, school districts have managed to fund all-day kindergarten with the appropriations provided. This $140 million will help cover those costs and could open up available funds for the school districts to utilize in other ways. Early childhood education is of great importance, which is a good step toward improvement in that area. On a related note, $127 million in ARPA funds has been allocated to the School Facilities Construction Commission to help urgent need schools. From the general fund, $75 million is going to the local vocational education centers’ construction pool.

Lawmakers approved $300 million of ARPA funding for broadband expansion. $50 million will be available immediately for economic development projects. Along with this allocation, the legislature put in place safety and oversight mechanisms and measures that can enhance this investment. They include establishing Public Service Commission oversight of performance levels, setting parameters for how the funding must be used for areas most in need, and enabling Distribution Cooperatives to participate in the broadband funding.

Furthermore, $20 million was appropriated for rural hospitals’ revolving loan funds. Following concerns expressed by local officials, nearly $6 million has been allocated for $2 per diem COVID costs for our county jails. $30 million has been provided for the county jail performance pilot program. $50 million has been directed for grants to provide drinking water to areas in need, with an additional near $50 million for grants to counties with costs for projects that may exceed their allocation of funds.

The state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) crisis remains at the forefront of our attention, especially those Kentuckians who have yet to receive their much-needed UI benefits. To help our small businesses facing a substantial UI rate increase, the General Assembly chose to utilize $575 million in ARPA funding as loan repayment for the more than $800 million loan the governor took from the federal government. Millions in funding were also provided for hiring additional personnel as well.

We received good news from the federal government late last week that President Biden approved Kentucky’s federal disaster declaration following the severe storms that impacted parts of Kentucky earlier this year. It appears that Casey, Marion, and Nelson Counties here in the 14th Senate District will be eligible. According to the federal government’s announcement, money will be available to local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work and repair or replacement of facilities that were damaged.

Much of the work of the final two days of the session was considering overriding vetoes that the governor issued. By the conclusion of the 2021 Session at 11:47 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30th, the legislature successfully overrode over two dozen of the governor’s vetoes. I want to highlight a number of those in this week’s legislative update and share with you some information on the appropriation of funding for initiatives that will make Kentucky stronger.

The following are bills that the governor vetoed but was overridden by the General Assembly. Those with emergency clauses will become state law immediately, while some will 90 days after the session concludes. The bills include:

Senate Bill (SB) 251 reorganizes the Office of the Kentucky Attorney General (AG) and allows the AG to bring an action challenging the constitutionality of Kentucky’s laws, orders, or regulations in any county where the alleged constitutional harm has occurred. Currently, all challenges to state law are required to go through the Franklin Circuit Court simply because the seat of state government is physically located in Franklin County. This essentially makes a super circuit where only two judges preside over matters that impact the entire state. There are plenty of qualified judges and circuits across the state that are perfectly capable of hearing these cases. SB 251 will help remedy those concerns and prioritize the citizens’ rights over the convenience of the state.

HB 258 brings overdue reforms to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System (KTRS) for future hires only. It will be a huge step toward stabilizing the system to ensure that our teachers have benefits they can rely on upon their retirement. KTRS has long been free of any reforms despite the various reforms passed addressing concerns with the other seven state employee retirement systems. The new reforms bring the system for new hires more in line with the type of benefits other state employees get. It raises the minimum retirement age from 55 to 57, bases benefits on the final five years of service rather than three, prevents second retirement accounts from being opened following an initial retirement and the re-employment, and prohibits KTRS from making retroactive changes to benefits. This reform is set to save billions of dollars. HB 258, in unison with the General Assembly’s providing historic levels of additional funding to the system over the last few years, are the types of steps necessary to shore up KTRS.

SB 65 nullifies specific administrative regulations that have been put in place. Most notably, it advocates for children and their custodial parents by holding noncustodial parents who are delinquent in their court-ordered child support accountable. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) enacted a regulation that issued SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) to be issued to noncustodial parents who were not providing for their own children. The legislature found that unacceptable and declared the regulation deficient. This legislation ends that troublesome regulation. A recent release from the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office shows that over 3,400 people in that county alone owe more than $3,000 in child support. The list equates to over $89 million in missing payments. In 2018, over 100,000 single-parent families were receiving SNAP benefits in Kentucky. Of these families, only 21% received any child support payments. Other states have incorporated child support compliance into their SNAP eligibility requirements with little to no additional administrative costs. For example, Kansas increased its child support collections by nearly 40% when it implemented a similar policy.

SB 148 declares the essential nature of child care centers. It addresses the overly burdensome regulatory requirements that CHFS placed on Kentucky’s child care centers over the past year. As Kentucky overcomes the pandemic, we need to support our child care centers in a way that keeps children safe while providing them the opportunity to sustain their centers during a pandemic. There are child care deserts throughout Kentucky, and we need to support policies that allow our centers to thrive and expand — rather than overregulating them out of business.

SB 165 aims to improve government transparency and accountability by providing the Kentucky State Treasurer with the ability to approve, revise, or deny state contracts if the legislative Government Contract and Review Committee find them questionable. There have been several concerning contracts over the years. This bill respects taxpayer dollars and puts in place better oversight to assure the legitimacy of state contracts.

HB 563 gives families more options when making decisions about schools. The bill allows the use of education opportunity accounts, a type of scholarship, for educational expenses and for students in some of the state’s largest counties. Individuals or businesses who donate to organizations that issue education opportunity accounts will be eligible for a tax credit. The measure also requires a board of education to adopt a nonresident pupil policy to govern terms under which the district allows enrollment of nonresident pupils.

Other veto overrides can be found by visiting legislature.ky.gov.

A bill that made final passage that is not subject to the governor’s veto is HB 91, a constitutional amendment that will now be proposed to Kentucky voters on the 2022 November election ballot. If supported by a majority of Kentucky voters, the amendment would add a new section to the Constitution of Kentucky stating that our constitution does not secure or protect the right to abortion or funding of abortion. HB 91 makes sure a rogue court does not disenfranchise Kentucky and that it is the General Assembly that makes the law concerning the lives of our most vulnerable citizens, the unborn human children.

There were additional bills that passed that were not veto overrides. Those bills will be subject to the governor’s veto, and the legislature will not be afforded the opportunity to override them as we did the bills above. I will detail some of those bills in a later legislative update after seeing which ones stand following the governor’s vetoes.

It has been an honor to represent you for another legislative session. I look forward to continuing work over the interim period in preparation for next year’s 2022 60-day session, which will be yet another budget session. If you have any questions or comments about these or any other public policy issues, please call my office toll-free at 502-564-8100 or the legislative message line1-800-372-7181. You can also reach me at (270) 692-6945 (home) or email Jimmy.Higdon@LRC.ky.gov.

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