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Legislative update: Committee meetings underway during 2022 interim

By JIMMY HIDGON
14th District State Senator

Thursday, July 28, 2022 — The Kentucky General Assembly is more than a month into the 2022 Interim, and committee meetings are in full swing. My fellow lawmakers and I are receiving updates on the implementation of past enacted policies and hearing testimony on various issues impacting Kentuckians.

SEN. JIMMY HIGDON

Notable interim committee meetings have occurred up to this point, including the Interim Joint Committee (IJC) on Appropriations and Revenue, IJC on Education,, IJC on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection, and many more. I want to share with you the information gathered from these meetings.

TRIBUTE TO FALLEN OFFICERS. As a member of the IJC on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection, I was moved by testimony from law enforcement and local officials in Floyd County, who updated the committee on what’s taken place since the June 30 shooting in the Allen community. Floyd County Deputy William Petry, Prestonsburg Police Captain Ralph Frasure, Prestonsburg Officer Jacob Chaffins and K-9 Officer Drago were killed in the line of duty while serving a warrant on a domestic violence call. We were told about how heroic each of them was and of the impact they made on their communities. I encourage you to watch the video of this committee meeting to learn more about these incredible officers and K-9 Drago. You can find archived legislative coverage at ket.org/legislature.

BROADBAND DEPLOYMENT, WATER INFRASTRUCTURE UPDATE. The IJC on Appropriations and Revenue received an update on the $250 million in funding for local governments to upgrade aging and inadequate water infrastructure and the $300 million allocated for broadband expansion during the 2021 Regular Session.

Forty-seven awards have recently been announced by the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA) as a part of the first round of broadband deployment efforts. The awards equate to almost $90 million in grant funding and $204 million in total investment when private matching funds are included. This will touch more than 34,000 households and businesses across 36 counties. Bardstown in Nelson County was recently awarded a nearly $1.1 million grant to expand access to high-speed internet to over 1,000 currently unserved households and businesses across Nelson, Spencer and Washington Counties.

Another $200 million has been committed to improving water and wastewater infrastructure across the state. You may be familiar with recent announcements in your area where the KIA has awarded funds for local cleaner water programs. In February, Casey County was awarded over $500,000 to replace or upgrade aging, obsolete equipment such as pump stations, water tanks, water meters and more.

Lebanon Water Works Company in Marion County received over $80,000 to add a new flow meter to the raw water intake system to allow the company to better monitor water from both the Rolling Fork River and the Fagan Branch Reservoir. Washington County was among those receiving a share of $5.6 million this past February to improve local water infrastructure. In April, the LaRue County Water District received almost $300,000 for the Buffalo Water Tank System, while Hodgenville’s cleaner water program was awarded nearly $250,000 for improvements to the Smith Plaza Tower. I’m excited about the further awarding of funds for our counties here in the 14th Senate District.

SCHOOL SAFETY. The committee heard from multiple professionals in the school safety and mental health fields about current standards and the implementation status of safety policies and mental health services in schools across the state.

Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center of School Safety, and Kentucky State School Marshal Ben Wilcox testified on the status of making school facilities safer and the staffing and training of school resource officers (SROs).

Akers highlighted four laws in particular enacted by the Kentucky General Assembly during his testimony, including a bill from 1998 that followed a tragedy at Heath High School in Paducah. The bills gave birth to the Kentucky Center for School Safety (KCSS) and made data collection on law violations possible, setting the framework for emergency management protocols in school. In the past decade, the General Assembly has strengthened school safety efforts and has made Kentucky a model for the nation. We were informed that 15 states had reached out interested in receiving the language of Kentucky school safety laws.

In 2013, a bill was enacted to codify laws on access to school facilities further. It placed a greater emphasis on emergency responses in schools. In 2019, landmark school safety legislation was passed following the Marshall County shooting. Known as the School Safety and Resiliency Act, the bill implemented new school security programs and encouraged schools to hire school resource officers (SRO). The bill required 120 hours of training for an SRO, regardless of background or experience. Testimony from Akers and celebrated Kentucky’s school safety efforts. They said the language of the law was clear and decisive and that it gave their respective offices the tools to work with schools to ensure safety standards are being met.

In the most recent legislative session, we passed House Bill 63, which added a deadline by which schools must show they are making full faith efforts to hire SROs. There are still challenges such as staffing issues in almost all areas of the workforce and budgetary realities. Nevertheless, there is no more important goal than ensuring we are protecting students, teachers and everyone within school walls. HB 63 provided schools with more options in their efforts to have SROs by allowing school districts to establish local police departments as you see on college campuses. This will not only give additional flexibility to schools in meeting the expectations of state law, but it also provides an opportunity for federal funding to support the effort. Legislative leadership has indicated a commitment to providing more funding to help schools.

Part of the struggles we faced in fully realizing the expectations set out in the School Safety and Resiliency Act was the impact of COVID-19 that came one year after its enactment. The state was forced to take a cautious approach in spending taxpayer dollars. Fortunately, due in part to sound economic policy and growing the state’s rainy day fund, we are in a stronger position now to direct needed dollars toward best protecting schools. In the most recent budget, hundreds of millions of extra dollars were allocated to cover the total cost of all-day kindergarten and a more significant share of local school transportation costs, opening up funding flexibilities for school districts.

BUDGET SURPLUS. In closing, recent reports show the state has a nearly $1 billion budget surplus this year, which is a testament to the policies enacted over the past several years and economic growth in Kentucky despite the national economic challenges such as inflation.

In some ways, we have successfully insulated ourselves and are in a good position financially, but it doesn’t mean we are immune to higher costs at the grocery store and the pump. It is crucial to remember inflation contributes to more significant state budget surpluses. Amid over 9 percent inflation, each dollar is worth less than it used to be.

As Senate Transportation Committee chair, I also want us to be mindful that state projects such as road improvement and construction will cost more than they did initially. It will be incumbent on lawmakers such as myself to maintain a commitment to being fiscally responsible with precious taxpayer dollars. There are things to be optimistic about, but we should not look at the news with rose-colored glasses. Still, my commitment to you is I will remain diligent in responsibly utilizing the dollars you have contributed to making available to the state.

WATTS RETIREMENT. Finally, I want to recognize Nelson County Judge-Executive Dean Watts upon his retirement at the end of this month and thank him for his years of dedicated service to the citizens of Nelson County. I wish him the very best. Blessings to him and his family.

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 line 1-800-372-7181. You can also reach me at 270-692-6945 (home) or email Jimmy.Higdon@LRC.ky.gov.

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