Pressing issues addressed

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By Sen. Jimmy Higdon

FRANKFORT –  The 30-day session of the General Assembly concluded at midnight on Tuesday of last week after two long days of hard work and bipartisan collaboration to ensure the state’s most pressing issues were addressed.  

First and foremost, this General Assembly passed significant and long overdue legislation to put the state’s public employee retirement system on a path to sustainability and solvency. Using recommendations from a bipartisan, bicameral task force that met last summer, both chambers, working closely with Gov. Steve Beshear, persistently worked on two bills to address the problem, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 440.  

Senate Bill 2 will establish a hybrid, cash balance plan for all new state employees, local government employees, legislators and judges who enter the system after Jan. 1, 2014. It will not affect current and retired employees, nor will it affect teachers’ retirement. It will require the full actuarially required contribution (ARC) to be paid to the pension system starting in fiscal year 2015. Any future cost-of-living adjustments for retirees are to be pre-funded. The state will contribute four percent and the employee five percent, with the plan to be managed by the Kentucky Retirement System (KRS).  The plan will guarantee employees a four percent return on investment. 

Employees will be fully vested with contributions and returns after five years and can take the benefits accrued with them should they change jobs.

The funding solution for Senate Bill 2 was passed in House Bill 440, through bipartisan collaboration. It is important to note no new taxes or lottery revenue will be used for the funds to pay the ARC. Instead, the funding will come from an adjustment to the personal tax credit, tax loophole closings and enhanced tax collection efforts. With the passage of these bills, state and local government employees’ retirement will be protected and the state will save an estimated $10 billion over the next 20 years.

As the General Assembly strengthened the pension system, so did it enact measures to strengthen Kentucky’s educational opportunities. 

Senate Bill 61 would give motivated and prepared students the ability to graduate from high school early.  Funds normally used for the student’s senior year in high school can be used to pay toward their first year of college. Senate Bill 64 would provide a student who graduates in three years with a Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship (KEES) award for their fourth year of high school. Senate Bill 97 would allow local school districts to adopt a policy requiring students to stay in school until age 18 or graduation, whichever comes first, with a stipulation that schools offer an approved alternative education program for at-risk students.  

A bill to ensure our children’s safety while at school was passed unanimously by both chambers.  Senate Bill 8, based on recommendations from the Kentucky Center on School Safety, requires schools to adopt a comprehensive safety plan, have twice-yearly emergency drills, and share school diagrams with local first-responders.  

The passage of House Bill 7 represents a bipartisan commitment to the state’s six public universities by granting them $363 million in bonding authority for 11 specific building projects. The universities will pay for the debt out of their own dedicated revenue streams, with no tax dollars being used for the projects. The Senate inserted a measure to protect students by forbidding the use of tuition increases to pay the debt. This measure will have the added benefit of creating more than 5,000 construction jobs.

Boosting the economy through job opportunities was the goal of Senate Bill 50, known as the hemp bill, which passed the House after a bipartisan compromise was reached on the House’s proposed amendment. Since Kentucky’s climate is ideal for growing industrial hemp, it is important for Kentucky to be in a position to benefit from the potential jobs created both in agriculture and in the manufacturing of goods made from industrial hemp, such as paper, clothing, rope, and even certain automobile parts, should the federal government legalize its growth. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Reps.

Thomas Massie and John Yarmuth, and Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer will now seek a waiver from the federal government for hemp production.

Other important bills were passed in a bipartisan, collaborative fashion, such as measures to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens from human trafficking, to streamline the voting process for the state’s overseas military, to provide accountability and transparency for the state’s special taxing districts, among others. As always, my goal was to represent the needs of the 14th District, as well as all Kentuckians, by passing legislation that would protect and enhance your lives.

The legislature will continue its work during the interim through joint committee meetings to learn more about new issues and to review past ones. Between now and the 60-day session which begins in January 2014, please contact me about any issues by calling me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or my home at 270-692-6945. More information on legislation is available online at www.lrc.ky.gov.

Note: Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, represents the 14th District, including Marion, Mercer, Nelson, Taylor, and Washington counties. He is the chairman of both the Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection Committee and the Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation; vice chairman of both the Licensing, Occupations and Administrative Regulations Committee and the Transportation Committee; and a member of the 2012 SS HB 1 Implementation and Oversight Committee; the Budget Review Subcommittee on General Government, Finance, and Public Protection; the Economic Development, Tourism and Labor Committee; the Education Committee; the Health and Welfare Committee; the Program Review and Investigations Committee; and the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee.