Greetings and best wishes for a new year! I hope everyone had a good holiday. This is the first in a series of informational columns of what’s happening in Frankfort that I hope you will find useful. It is my intent to write you on a weekly basis as we go through my first General Assembly session together.
A new year marks a new season in your state capital. On Tuesday, January 8th, the Senate convened for the 2013 General Assembly Session, a session that will last 30 days. The first week is traditionally an “organizational” week in which the respective caucuses choose their leaders and committee assignments are disbursed to members.
I am pleased to take the reins of the Judiciary Committee as chairman, a true honor for a freshman legislator. I will also be serving as the Vice-Chair of the Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection Committee. I will be a member of the Agriculture Committee, the Capital Planning Advisory Board, the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee, and the Transportation Committee. I am excited and eager to contribute my efforts to each one of these.
While the 2013 Session is technically a “short” one, it surely is not one that will be short on issues. While odd-year sessions are not typically budget years, there are several issues that could affect budget-planning. First and foremost is the issue of public employee pension reform. Many of you are aware that the public employee pension system is only about 26% funded which represents a $33 billion unfunded liability. (Please note that teachers’ retirement is entirely different and these discussions do not apply to it.) Over the summer, a task force formed to offer recommendations heard from a diverse group of advocates and experts such as state employees, business groups, and the Pew Center. One of the principle recommendations is to fully fund the actuarial recommended contribution. Indubitably, tough decisions are ahead. What is clear, though, is that the system is in dire need of reform because the retirement system will end up consuming more and more tax dollars straining the budgets of other tax-payer needs such as education and human services.
The Governor has tried to link pension reform with his task force on tax reform. Recently, this group recommended raising both household and business utility rates, raising the cigarette tax, taxing retiree pensions, and eliminating certain deductions among other suggestions. First of all, let me be clear, I just don’t see much sentiment in the Senate for raising taxes. No one has made the case to me that raising taxes will spur the economy and surely we would want a tax policy that grows jobs and expands the economy. More people employed and paying taxes is certainly better than less. As a revenue measure, these types of bills must start in the House of Representatives. As your senator, however, I intend to be very vocal about protecting your hard-earned income.
Another challenge facing the Commonwealth is the Governor’s implementation of Medicaid managed care which, unfortunately, has been less than ideal from the start. Even this early, I have heard many complaints about denial of care to patients and delayed payments to doctors and hospitals. Medicaid provides a valuable service to over 800,000 Kentuckians and it is a huge cost driver to the state budget. My goal is to make sure every tax dollar used to fund Medicaid is used effectively.
Education and ensuring our children are work- and career-ready remains a priority for me. Rewarding students who push themselves to take Advanced Placement classes and the teachers who teach them has been on the Senate agenda. It is likely that you will see another push in this area as well as a bill making it easier for students to graduate high school early too. We will also continue to monitor the implementation of a Senate proposal (SB 1 - 2009) that makes Kentucky a national leader using common-core standards and fair teacher evaluations. I will also carefully evaluate any school safety proposals considered during the next session.
There will be plenty of other topics, of course. Pro-life legislation is extremely important as we strive to protect the unborn, financial transparency of special taxing districts, and the impact of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) on Kentucky (since the Governor has already authorized a state healthcare exchange) will all be addressed in some form.
I hope this provides you with a sense of the upcoming session. I am sure other bills will pop up that I have not mentioned and I will do my best to keep you informed. In the meantime, if I can be of any assistance or you have any questions, concerns, or comments, please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or visit us at www.lrc.ky.gov to learn more about our work.
Senator Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville) represents the 3rd District including Christian, Logan, and Todd counties