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FRANKFORT – This past week, the General Assembly returned to the Capitol to kick off the main portion of the 2011 Regular Session.
This follows the guidelines established in the state’s Constitution for odd-year meetings, which call for a brief recess after legislators meet for four days in early January to elect House and Senate leaders and establish committee membership for the next two years.
When we returned last Tuesday, Governor Beshear set the stage for the work ahead when he offered the annual State of the Commonwealth address.
Given the tough times we have had economically during the last several years, he pointed out where Kentucky has done well, especially when compared to other parts of the country.
He said that state government, now at its smallest size in at least 20 years, has been able to avoid drastic measures taken by such states as New Jersey, which laid off 3,000 teachers last spring; Virginia, which has reduced elementary and secondary school spending by $700 million; and Michigan, which laid off 100 state troopers. We haven’t gone in the other direction, either, like Illinois, which recently raised its individual income tax by two-thirds, and Maryland, which has increased its sales tax.
Instead, during a series of eight reductions over the past three years, we have strategically cut a billion dollars, and we did it without layoffs or touching classroom funding. Now, for the first time in a long time, state receipts are looking up, and companies are taking advantage of the improved tax incentive program the legislature put in place in 2009. Beshear said nearly 250 companies have sought the incentives to help them move forward, with planned investments exceeding $2 billion.
On top of that, companies like Ford and General Electric have announced thousands of new jobs, and our military presence has grown substantially as the federal government streamlines its operations nationally. This economic trend appears to be widespread, when considering that USA Today says Kentucky has had the fourth-highest rate in personal income growth since the recession ended.
The future is looking bright as well, given the high rankings our students are achieving. Our fourth and eighth grade test scores now regularly exceed the national average in a variety of subjects.
With education in mind, Beshear used his remarks to highlight one of the top priorities both he and the House have this year: Raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18.
This would change a rule that dates back nearly a century, when a diploma was not the necessity it is today to succeed. Those who drop out earn an average of $7,000 less each year of their career than those who finish high school, and they are also much more likely to need social services.
House Bill 225, which made it through the House Education Committee this past week, would phase in this increase of the dropout age, and it would establish alternative programs for students who are most at-risk academically. Hopefully this will be the year that we can see this become law, because about 6,000 students drop out a year. That’s 6,000 too many.
This past week, the House’s committees moved forward on several other issues, including proposals to curb illegal immigration without putting a burden on our local governments and to expand Domestic Violence Orders to dating couples.
Bills that I sponsored that were passed in committee and moved to the House floor include:
* House Bill 14, which would waive probate fees for military, law enforcement and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
* House Bill 17, which would mandate a three-step intervention for K-3 students showing weakness in math, reading and behavior.
* House Bill 18, which states that items that are stolen and have a vehicle identification number will be placed in the NCIC database.
Another bill that I am sponsoring generated a considerable amount of news this past week. House Bill 281, which the House Judiciary Committee discussed on Thursday, would restrict 15 allergy and cold medications while leaving 137 still available over-the-counter. This move is designed to drastically cut back the record number of meth labs we have seen, and it could help the state save $300-$400 million if all could be eliminated.
Oregon and Mississippi are having excellent results after passing laws requiring a prescription for medicines containing pseudoephedrine. Indiana, Tennessee and West Virginia are considering doing the same thing.
Because odd-year legislative sessions only last for 30 days, time is relatively short to cover these and many other issues. Your input, then, is more important than ever.
Should you want to contact me, please write to Room 351B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.