POLITICS: Will our state officials bring home the bacon?

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From pensions to pill mills: A look at issues facing Frankfort legislators this session

By Brandon Mattingly


Last week, the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly convened for the four-day organizational week and at the top of the agenda when session resumes on Feb. 5 will be finding a solution to the pension plan for state employees.

An estimated $33 billion in pension money is without funding and both of Washington County’s representatives in Frankfort said correcting the issue will take bipartisan effort.

“We must make significant changes to the pension system for new individuals in order to make sure we preserve it for those already in, those preparing to retire, and those already retired,” said state House Rep. Mike Harmon, R-Danville, whose district also covers Washington County. “I believe some version of the hybrid plan would help to accomplish this, so we can begin to plug the hole and slow the decline of the pension system.  However, even if we take this action, we will have to look for additional funding to resolve the problems with the current system.”

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, whose senate district also covers Washington County, agreed that Democrats and Republicans are going to have to meet somewhere in the middle for any new policy to be successful. 

“If we come away with pension reform that works and that neither side likes, we probably did a pretty good job, because that’s what our government is based on — some sort of compromise,” he said.

Dozens of other issues will be discussed next month, but among those garnering the most attention will be any changes made to House Bill 1 (also known as the Pill Mill bill). HB 1 limits access to prescription drugs in the Commonwealth’s fight against substance abuse. An unintended consequence of the bill, however, has been a restriction on drug availability for those who have a genuine need for medication.

“We had some unintended consequences and caused some unnecessary frustrations for law-abiding citizens and we need to go in and correct those issues,” Higdon said.

A particular conversation that Harmon had with a resident in his district reiterated to him that something needed to be done.

“I had one woman call who indicated that her 87-year-old mother was going to have to have a urine test at a cost of $300 in order to continue with her care and that Medicare was not going to cover the cost because it was not ‘medically necessary,’” Harmon said. “I do understand that we have a significant drug problem, but we cannot put seniors in a position to have to choose between medicine or food.”

Another potential policy that Higdon has spoken up in support for is the potential of raising the high school dropout age from 16 to 18 over a five-year period. Some counties throughout the state have strongly opposed the suggested legislation, which Higdon said can be handled by simply allowing districts to decide which standard to use based on their needs.

“We passed a version last year that would allow local boards of education to make the choice. I really like that, because it gives local control,” Higdon said. “Washington County has an excellent school system and leadership and I think it’s something that the Washington County Board of Education would jump right on.”

Other issues to be discussed include oversight on special taxing districts, pro-life registration and gambling. The prospect of redistricting has arisen once again, but Harmon indicated those discussions are looking less likely to occur — at least in the immediate future. Harmon did, however, express his views on what action needs to be taken in tax reform.

“I would love to see a plan to eliminate the personal and corporate income tax in lieu of a simple sales tax that is also extended to services,” he said. “However, I believe the focus will be more on increasing revenues than on shifting to a system that grows more rapidly with the economy. That’s a shame because even though more revenue is needed, this is not a time to put additional tax burdens on either individuals or businesses.”

As is the case every year, many new faces will converge on Frankfort for the lawmaking session, but the state senate is also seeing a change in leadership with Sen. Robert Stivers , R-Manchester, taking over as senate president, replacing Sen. David Williams, R-Burkesville. It could be a change that leads to a productive session in 2013.

“(Stivers) has a lot of institutional knowledge having been there for 16 years,” Higdon said. “He’s great to work with and he’s very matter of fact. He doesn’t beat around the bush and he gets you an answer, so I think you’re going to find a more cooperative senate than we’ve seen in the past.”

Higdon described some past negotiations as “winner-take-all,” but he and Harmon both see the potential for this year’s group to accomplish their goals.

“I am currently hopefully optimistic,” Harmon said. “The current personalities are not as volatile, but what I have found (sometimes with both parties and both chambers) in the past, is that when the majority does not get their way, it can, and has become personal. It is a shame we have reached a point in politics where the only acceptable definition of compromise is for the other side to give in. Compromise has been and should be where a mutually acceptable agreement can be reached by a majority of parties involved.”

For more information about the 2013 Kentucky general assembly, visit www.lrc.ky.gov.

Higdon can be contacted on his home phone at (270) 692-6945 or email at jimmy.higdon@lrc.ky.gov. Harmon can be reached at mikeharmon@yahoo.com. Either representative can also be contacted on the message line, which operates until 11 p.m. while in session, at 1-800-372-7181.