Rep. Belcher discusses public safety, improving government services, education and health issues

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By Rep. Linda Belcher

            FRANKFORT – Each legislative session, the General Assembly spends much of its time on just a few areas: public safety, improving government services, education and our health.

            In the 2011 Regular Session, that focus in the Kentucky House can be found in such high profile bills as raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18, closing an unexpected deficit in Medicaid and cracking down on drunken driving.  Many others also neatly fit within those categories.

            That’s especially true of legislation that made it through the House nearly unanimously on Thursday.  It’s designed to save taxpayer dollars and increase public safety, and it has the potential to be one of the session’s most far-reaching laws and perhaps the biggest change to our criminal statutes since they were revamped in the mid-1970s.

            This bill – and its virtually identical twin in the state Senate – is the result of more than six months’ worth of work by leaders in all three branches of government and representatives from more than a half-dozen other groups: judges, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement, victims’ advocates, mental health professionals, jailers and county officials.  All were able to come together and, through the spirit of compromise, offer their support.

            Acting as a guide was the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States, a well-respected, non-profit organization that has worked wonders in such states as Texas and South Carolina, where corrections costs and crime alike were lowered as a result.

            This legislation is an attempt to stop a decade’s worth of prison growth that far-outpaced the nation’s even as our crime rate remained relatively low.  We now spend $440 million a year to house about 21,000 prisoners, while our counties are paying $140 million more to run their jails.

            The bill’s overall goal is fairly simple.  It puts much more emphasis on truly treating non-violent drug users who possess only enough for personal use and it aims to reduce recidivism – people who return to prison within several years of release – by taking a more common-sense approach on non-criminal violations of probation and parole.  These two areas are the main drivers behind a prison population that is 45 percent larger than it was in 2000. 

            The goal is to see Kentucky go from having the nation’s fastest-growing prison population – a title we unfortunately earned in 2007 – to having growth that is much more in line with other states.  In this case, being average would be a true success story.

            As this bill moves forward, there are many other bills that have passed the House in recent days that align with the five areas mentioned at the column’s beginning.

            With public safety in mind, the House is supporting a ban of a dangerous synthetic drug known as Red Dove and a variety of other street names; it has quickly been making inroads across our state and the nation, and is often intentionally mis-labeled as bath salts or insecticide to avoid attention from law enforcement.

            In education, the House has voted to allow school boards to sell advertising on school buses and to make sensible exceptions to truancy laws as they apply to autistic children who may arrive late to school or need to leave early.  We also call for an in-depth study on childhood obesity.

            The House would improve our health by instituting professional requirements for contractors who specialize in removing radon from our homes and businesses; and it would streamline government services by putting more information online for the public and by expanding the legislature’s oversight of contracts the state enters into with the private sector.

            There have already been quite a few bills making it through the House that would help our soldiers and veterans.  One of those would let non-Kentucky veterans attend college here at the same tuition rate as in-state veterans who qualify under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  Two others would let soldiers hunt or fish without a license on military property owned by the state and would give leniency to active-duty soldiers who are unable to meet professional licensing requirements tied to their non-military job.

            If it passes, those who may not have served could still show their support for our men and women in uniform by purchasing an “I Support Veterans” license plate.

            This is only a quick look at some of the ideas now being debated in the Capitol.  There are many others making their way through the process that I will cover in the days ahead.

            We have less than two weeks left before our work this legislative session is largely done, so there is still some time to contact me with your views if you’d like.  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.