Every legislative session has its mix of the good, the bad and the disappointing. Unfortunately, the recently concluded 2014 General Assembly fell too heavily into that final category.
In fairness, the state budget always consumes the giant’s share of legislative time and attention when it is deliberated in even-numbered years. As the key policy blueprint for state agencies, the spending plan understandably takes center stage – especially in the closing days of the session when House and Senate differences are negotiated in marathon meetings.
And even-numbered years also have political overtones that are personal for many legislators as all House seats and half of the Senate seats are on the ballot.
These two things combined might make it understandable that there is limited progress on other initiatives. But that doesn’t make it acceptable.
On the good side of the ledger, the enacted 2014-16 state budget includes several positive elements, including the restoration of funding for elementary and secondary education that was lost during the recession and full funding of the Kentucky Retirement System (KRS). There also were positive targeted tax relief measures for industries such as our signature bourbon industry and a tax incentive to encourage “angel” investments in new start-up companies.
Juvenile justice reforms won passage to give youthful offenders a better chance of turning their lives around. And the legislators’ standing strong against efforts to increase workers’ compensation costs, politicize the Public Service Commission, repeal the state’s tough academic standards and enact onerous coal-mining restrictions was commendable.
But even a limited review quickly reveals a list of negatives that is far longer than Kentucky can afford.
At the top of that list is the legislation known as “the P3 bill” that would have developed a mechanism for greater use of public-private partnerships to save taxpayers’ money and create a transparent, accountable process of contracting for needed services or infrastructure projects.
The P3 bill passed the House by a 10-to-1 margin and Senate by a 3-to-1 margin, both with overwhelming bipartisan support. But Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the measure because of a House amendment that would prohibit the use of tolls to help finance the reconstruction of the Brent Spence Bridge in northern Kentucky. And, unfortunately, the House – where the bill originated – declined to override the veto, meaning it did not come up for further action in the Senate.
In our view, the bill was the most important piece of job-creation legislation passed this year and, as such, had the support of more than 35 civic and business organizations. The governor’s veto was unnecessary and should have been addressed with swift legislative action in the final days of session. This was definitely a missed opportunity to move Kentucky forward – and to catch up with 34 other states where P3 laws already exist.
In addition to the negative outcome for the partnership legislation, this General Assembly session came up short by:
• Failing to enact legislation to establish a statewide smoke-free policy.
• Failing to address the funding shortfall in the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS) or even to authorize a study on a way to fix that huge fiscal problem.
• Failing to approve medical review panels that would help put an end to the growing number of frivolous lawsuits against such health care providers as hospitals, nurses, doctors, nursing homes and others.
• Failing to modernize Kentucky’s outdated telecommunications laws.
• Failing to consider the creation of charter schools.
• Failing to approve a constitutional amendment that, if approved, would give communities the option of increasing the sales tax for voter-endorsed projects.
• Failing to give serious consideration to legislation to expand gaming and support Kentucky’s signature Thoroughbred industry.
When Kentucky voters approved the constitutional amendment to allow annual legislative sessions, it was with the hope that every session, every year, would mean progress for the state. The 2014 session fell far short of that mark.
Dave Adkisson is president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.