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Rep. Linda Belcher's perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly

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By Rep. Linda Belcher

   Although it is too soon to say what exactly will become law
when the 2011 legislative session concludes next month, several major
initiatives that the Kentucky House of Representatives would like to see
on that list moved further down the road this past week.

That includes one of the chamber's - and Governor Beshear's
- top priorities this year: Keeping Medicaid from facing a catastrophic
deficit in the months ahead.

This problem arose when Congress allocated less money for
the program than had been expected when the state budget was adopted
last year. If we don't make up that difference, we will not receive the
corresponding federal match, and the program will have to cut about $600
million by the end of June.

Fortunately, the fix is relatively simple. It calls for
moving the state's portion forward from next year's Medicaid budget,
which would then trigger the federal match. We would then re-balance
Medicaid in 2012 from savings expected by expanding managed care
programs across the state. This solution doesn't require any new
revenue, and it doesn't affect any other state program. The House
passed this overwhelmingly on Thursday, sending it along to the state
Senate.

A second priority the House shares with the governor -
raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 - also made it through
the House with little dissention on Thursday. This change would put us
among the 25 states that have a higher dropout age, a group that
includes Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee.

This legislation would be phased in over five years, giving
students and schools alike time to adjust. It also puts an added
emphasis as well on alternative education programs for those who are
most at-risk academically.

During committee hearings I spoke about the need for
technical skills and the resources to teach those skills. We must
provide classes that will engage all students, not just college-bound
students.

Another prominent bill to make it through the House last
week would go a long way in making the highways safer by calling for
interlock ignition devices to be used by drivers convicted of a DUI.
There are thousands of these cases each year, and in 2009, more than 200
people lost their lives on Kentucky's roadways in alcohol-related
accidents. This legislation would cut down on that dramatically by
keeping DUI offenders from driving if they have alcohol on their breath.
About 13 other states have already taken this step.

One of the most talked-about issues this legislative session
centers on illegal immigration. Last week, the House took a major step
forward when it passed House Bill 3, which calls on employers working
with the state to use an electronic verification system to ensure all of
their employees are citizens. Those not complying would be barred from
having a contract with the state.

This approach tackles the issue in a way that does not put
an undue burden on our local law enforcement or our crowded jails. It
does not detract anyone from working with federal immigration officials,
either. It should be noted that the federal government is deporting
significantly more illegal immigrants than just a few years ago,
according to a recently released study by Syracuse University.

With this bill now in the Senate, another that should soon
join its place would bring in potentially tens of millions of dollars to
the state budget. It made it through the House Judiciary Committee on
Wednesday.

This legislation, known as the False Claims Act, would give
Kentucky a powerful tool to root out fraud involving state tax dollars.
Under it, whistleblowers would have strong financial incentive to bring
legal action, and penalties could reach three times as much as had been
taken through the fraud. The whistleblowers would be eligible for up to
30 percent of that total.

The Federal Government and more than two dozen other states
have similar laws, and since 1986, they have recouped a combined $25
billion. Incidentally, the concept dates back to the Civil War, when
President Lincoln used it to prosecute war profiteers.

This week marks the mid-point of the 2011 Regular Session,
so the hours promise to get longer as the calendar grows shorter. I
appreciate those who have contacted me so far; if you would like to join
them, my address is 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.