Legislative update from Rep. Linda Belcher

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By Rep. Linda Belcher

 FRANKFORT – Long after a legislative session is in the history books, it is often remembered by just one or two of its most prominent bills.  Early last week, the General Assembly gave its overwhelming approval to the one that will almost certainly top this year’s list.

            House Bill 463, which was signed into law on Thursday, is designed to sensibly rein in a prison population that is nearly 50 percent larger than it was in 2000.  The state’s prison growth in 2007 alone was almost as large as the national average over the entire decade.  With a price tag approaching a half-billion dollars annually, that trend has been crowding out many other worthy programs.

            This legislation is a textbook example of what can be accomplished when everyone has a seat at the table.  That’s why it has the support of the leaders of all three branches of government, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement, local officials, jailers and victims’ advocates.  The numerous meetings involving these groups during much of the past year were both bipartisan and a true partnership at the state and local level.

            A tremendous amount of help came from the Pew Center on the States, a prestigious non-profit organization that had worked on similar reforms in such states as Texas, Kansas and South Carolina.  That experience proved to be a wonderful guide on what could work.  As these states have shown, you can save money, lower the crime rate and increase public safety.

            The bill focuses on two main areas: Strengthening probation and parole in an effort to reduce the number of people returning to prison for technical violations and helping low-level drug users truly overcome their addiction.  These have been the main drivers behind our prison growth. 

            We expect the savings to top more than $40 million a year, or about 10 percent of the cost to run our prisons.  About half of that will go back into the system to carry out the law’s new and updated programs, which include such things as greater reliance on electronic monitoring and making sure victims are better informed about the progress of the sentences of those who harmed them.

            As the session’s last full week drew to a close, several other significant bills either made it to the governor’s desk or got much closer to that goal.

            The House passed Senate Bill 12, which would give Kentucky school superintendents a vote in the election of new principals.  Currently, Kentucky superintendents have no voice in principal selection because state law gives school-based decision making councils that authority.  Under Senate Bill 12, the superintendent or his or her designee would serve as chair of the council and have a vote in the new hiring process.  Senate Bill 12 passed the House by a vote of 83-16 and now returns to the Senate for approval.

            In news tied to our utilities, the House and Senate are also considering whether the state would be better served to have the Public Service Commission’s members be elected rather than appointed by the governor.  The PSC regulates many utilities across the state, but there has been some concern in light of significant rate increases in electric bills that it has not done enough to keep these rates in check.

            The House and Senate are also finalizing legislation that would make it easier for businesses when it comes to paperwork involving such things as permits.  This one-stop shopping, as it is informally called, should cut a significant amount of red tape.

            Barring a change in schedule, the General Assembly will only meet one day this week before a 10-day veto recess.  We will return for one to two days in mid-March to consider any possible vetoes or any other legislation in which there may be agreement.

            As always, I want to thank those who have contacted me this session.  Although much of our work is done, it is never too late to let me know your thoughts or concerns.  You can write to me year-round at 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.