House faces 'defining moment' with state budget

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Legislators try to figure out how to balance budget, from scratch

By The Staff

FRANKFORT – As the clock tick-tocked on a session still without a formal budget proposal, the General Assembly this week stared down the barrel of what one leader called its 'defining moment,' moving ahead with what another leader called its greatest challenge since at least 1990.


That challenge: Going it alone and writing a balanced budget from scratch, without broad tax increases or Draconian program cuts -- and without working from the governor's own proposed budget, with its $780 million from presumed racetrack slots revenues to help plug a budget gap of a billion dollars or more. Lawmakers from both chambers have rejected the slots idea as unpassable this session.


The budget bill will originate in the House. But leaders from both chambers have been cooperating in 'big picture' discussions about the overall parameters of a budget approach the Senate and House could agree to. This as data was being gathered across the whole spectrum of state government, so the House budget committee could produce a specific working document to start the actual legislation moving.


At week's end, a model bill draft had been prepared, ready for the last of that information to be plugged in, in hopes it could be completed and sent to the House budget committee next week. It's still planned that the House finish work on its budget bill in time to send it to the Senate by early March.  


Meanwhile this week, in floor action, the full Senate passed the latest in its series of bills to encourage -- and reward -- Kentucky high-school kids who take more rigorous coursework. Senate Bill 67 would create a statewide program for motivated students to graduate from high school early, with more intensive core and advanced work, rather than simply padding out the normal four years with electives.


Under the plan, students interested in early graduation could get their diploma with 18 courses, rather than the 22 normally required. While the number of electives would be reduced, core courses would actually increase from 15 to 16. These would include two years of a foreign language along with biology, chemistry, and other traditional pre-college classwork.


Further, two of those courses must be Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, tough classes which can themselves be used for college credit with good scores on the final exams. A 3.2 GPA and certain benchmark scores on the ACT math and English sections would be required as well. Every school district would offer English I and Algebra I to eighth-grade students interested in following the early-graduation track.


Incentives for students to participate would be tremendous. Beyond the chance to pursue challenging coursework, there's a payoff at the end: Money to help them pay for college.


Every year, the state sends local school districts approximately $2500 per student. Students graduating through early graduation could use that money themselves toward their first year's tuition at any Kentucky two- or four-year college. In addition, the KEES scholarship money for their abbreviated high-school career would be increased to equal a normal four-year program, so they won't be punished for the accelerated coursework.


In other action this week, the ugly but too-common word 'abuse' took three different turns in the legislative spotlight, in three different contexts: Domestic abuse, child abuse, and animal abuse


The House Judiciary Committee sent an omnibus domestic-violence bill to the full House that adds key protections for dating partners in abusive relationships and expands the list of crimes that can be prosecuted under the state’s domestic-violence laws.


HB 89 includes provisions allowing state courts to grant domestic-violence restraining orders to any dating partners, regardless of whether the couple is living together, has lived together, or has a child together. Currently only dating partners who meet those criteria can seek a DVO. This provision has been hailed by advocates as a giant leap forward in extending the umbrella of court protection to countless potential victims.


If the full House passes the bill as expected, it will come on the heels of its earlier passage of House Bill 1 – widely known as Amanda's Bill – which allows courts to order the use of GPS tracking bracelets in domestic violence cases.


The full House without debate this week passed HB 285, a bill aimed at helping medical personnel and others who frequently deal with children to spot signs of deliberate abuse. Indications of abuse – like severe bruising -- are frequently noticed but not recognized and reported as such, child advocates say. The training will focus especially on head injuries, which are the chief cause of death in very young children.


The bill would require training for doctors, nurses, day care workers, police officers, and certain others. For most, the instruction would be incorporated into existing continuing education requirements.


Finally, a bill clearing veterinarians to report animal abuse by their clients sailed through the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee. Under the confidentially requirements of existing law, veterinarians cannot report suspected abuse. HB 238 would give veterinarians the same right to report as any other citizen.


The Legislature's home page, www.lrc.ky.gov,  provides information summaries and full texts of bills under consideration, as well as information on the daily progress each bill has made through the legislative process.

This story was provided by the Kentucky Legislative Research Committee, www.lrc.ky.gov/.