Legislative Update, Jan. 22nd
FRANKFORT – By the third week of a 60-day legislative session, the General Assembly usually has found a steady pace, one where there is considerable activity but the more consequential work still lies ahead.
That’s not the case this year, however. Two of the legislature’s biggest issues – redistricting and adopting a two-year state budget – crossed major thresholds this past week, although the outcome for both is still undetermined.
In redistricting, Governor Andy Beshear vetoed the new maps for the 100-member state House and our six congressional districts. While boundary lines must be redrawn every decade to comply with population changes, he called these particular maps “an unconstitutional political gerrymander.” There are several troubling aspects about these maps, but two of the biggest are the way the one for the state House minimizes many cities in our larger counties, while the congressional one bizarrely stretches one district from the Mississippi River to Frankfort.
The General Assembly overrode both vetoes on Thursday, but a group of concerned citizens filed suit that same day to block the maps’ implementation. This was largely expected, because most states have their redistricting plans challenged in court, and Kentucky saw the same thing happen after the 1990 and 2010 Censuses. It’s likely a resolution will come quickly, though. If we follow a path similar to what happened in 2012, a final decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court could be handed down within a few weeks.
On the same day the General Assembly took up redistricting vetoes, the Kentucky House voted for its version of the state budget. This is a true break from the past, because, in modern times, it’s never happened before late February.
There are broad areas in the House budget that are easy to support, since recent rounds of federal funding and a stronger-than-expected company mean we literally have billions of dollars more available than two years ago. This should actually be the first budget since 2006 not to have any cuts. In the broadest sense, state spending plans don’t change dramatically from one fiscal year to the next.
If you count every tax dollar that flows through state government – a figure that includes state and federal sources as well as such restricted funds as college tuition – the two-year total for the 2022-2024 budget cycle amounts to more than $118 billion. However, most of the General Assembly’s focus centers on two key sections funded by your state tax dollars: The General Fund and the Road Fund. The former is roughly $15 billion a year, while the latter amounts to about $1.7 billion annually. This money is what largely drives the rest.
In breaking the General Fund down further, about 40 percent goes to elementary and secondary education; nine percent is sent to our public colleges and universities; 15 percent represents our contribution to Medicaid; 11 percent covers criminal justice; seven percent goes to human services; and the final sixth covers everything else, from our state parks to environmental protection.
The General Fund’s revenues come from a variety of sources, but the individual income tax and sales and use taxes account for about three-fourths of the total. I will continue to advocate for sports wagering and casino gambling as we are simply sending tax dollars across the border to other states.
Almost a year ago, I stood on the floor of the House and asked why we weren’t fully funding education. Rep. Petrie, the chair of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, responded by asking what did it mean to fully fund public education and what metrics would be used to measure it? Over the year, I have been reading research on the question of public school funding, have met multiple times with the A&R chair, and participated in a legislative Public School Funding Task Force.
Several of the recommendations of the Task Force were included in the House budget: funding for full-day kindergarten and an increase in funding for family resource coordinators in our schools. The House budget also:
- Fully funds the ARC for teachers’ retirement
- Fully funds retired teacher healthcare
- Designates $11.9m each year for professional development for public schools
- Increases support for public school transportation by $59.7m, which fully funds that cost for approximately 70% of our districts.
- Designates $12.4m in FY23 and $17.6m in FY24 for the federally designated 988 mental health crisis hotline
- Increases by 50 the number of slots in the Michelle P. and SCL Medicaid Waiver programs (which should be higher based on need).
I was a “yes” vote for the House budget and am hopeful that as the bill moves through the Senate additional Michelle P. slots may be added and public school transportation may be fully funded for all districts.
The House budget does not provide salary increases for public school certified and classified staff. However, with the additional SEEK, kindergarten, and transportation funding, school districts are encouraged to increase wages for educators. A looming teacher shortage is a real concern. I spoke on the floor about teachers who are considering leaving the classroom and what may be necessary to get them to continue as teachers.
Now that the House has voted for its plan, the Senate has the chance to do the same. Although the budget timeline has been sped up, it’s still likely the budget won’t be sent to Gov. Beshear until well into March. Any vetoes he may issue will be considered by the legislature before it wraps up its work in mid-April, and the budget will take effect on July 1st.
Although the budget and redistricting dominated the week’s news, there were some welcome bipartisan moments. The House, for example, put its support behind legislation that would make mental health the priority it deserves to be when it comes to excused school absences, and many of us celebrated the latest annual report showing that the bourbon and overall distillery industry is booming. In 2020, its economic impact neared $9 billion, and it supported more than 22,000 jobs.
Legislation to support early literacy has been filed in both the House and the Senate. SB9 passed the Senate chambers on Wednesday and HB226 is likely to be heard in a House committee next week. The bills are called companion bills as they have the same language. Both bills establish the “Read to Succeed Fund” that would provide professional development and coaching for elementary school teachers who teach reading. I welcome any thoughts or questions you have regarding the bills, but be warned, I can talk for hours about teaching reading!
To finish up the week, I joined many of my colleagues for a blood drive sponsored by the Legislative Research Commission and the American Red Cross. Also, I ordered free Covid test kits from the United States Postal Service at this link: https://special.usps.com/testkits.
Stay healthy and take care,