A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

2018 legislature: Big winners — children in foster care, crime victims; the rest — losers and questions

By Tom Latek
Kentucky Today

The 2018 General Assembly is now history and while there are some obvious winners and losers, there are two other categories to consider: “both” or “too soon to tell.”

Children in foster care, or awaiting adoption, is one area that is an obvious winner. A bipartisan working group named on the final day of the 2017 session by then-Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, met for much of last year before coming up with recommendations that resulted in House Bill 1.

Among its more significant provisions, more specific timelines for the termination of parental rights, establishing more accountability and oversight within the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, standardizing home studies to ensure safe homes in a more efficient manner, and establishing a putative father registry in keeping with around 27 other states.

It also gives foster care parents a stronger voice in the process, by expanding foster care advisory boards and allowing more parental input.

Other key components include utilizing technology to reduce the large amount of paperwork required of social workers, as well as improving efforts to recruit and retain valuable social workers. The latter goal received a large boost when Gov. Matt Bevin proposed adding $24 million to hiring and increasing pay for social workers along with $10.8 million to improve the foster care placement process and adoption efforts in his two-year budget proposal.

More work on adoption and foster care could come in later years through the work of a permanent Child Welfare Oversight and Advisory Committee that was also created by HB 1. They will “review, analyze, and provide oversight to the General Assembly on child welfare” in the state.

Health and Family Services officials say there are currently more than 9,000 children in foster care who could be helped by the legislation.

Crime victims were another winner. Senate Bill 3, “Marsy’s Law” as it is known, is a proposed constitutional amendment to expand crime victims’ rights. It was the first bill to clear both the House and Senate in 2018 and will go on the November ballot for voters to approve.

Anti-gang legislation, HB 169, would increase penalties for those convicted of crimes that were the result of gang-activity following a separate hearing, as well as penalties for those adults who recruit gang members. It also allows those injured by gang activity to sue to recover their losses. Critics said the bill was racist and would discriminate against minorities and the poor. That bill is still on the governor’s desk at this writing.

Those seeking tax reform also won. HB 366, written as the revenue bill to accompany the budget bill (HB 200), changes Kentucky’s income tax on individuals and companies to a flat five percent rate, taxes some services for the first time, raises the tax on cigarettes 50 cents per pack to $1.10, and eliminates the $10 personal income tax credit.

Tweaks to both budget and revenue bills were made on Saturday, especially at the request of Toyota and other large Kentucky employers, to restore a manufacturing credit to the companies.

Both HB 200 and HB 366 were vetoed by Gov. Bevin but were overridden in both chambers on April 13.

Another winner was Kentucky’s fledgling solar industry. HB 227, which was sought by utility companies, would roll-back reimbursement for homeowners who returned power to the grid after installing solar panels on their homes. House members filed 30 floor amendments to the bill, which were rendered moot when House leadership sent the bill back to committee where more changes were made. It passed the House, but later died in the Senate.

Education both won and lost in the 2018 session. Public education did share in state agency budget cuts, but lawmakers did raise the SEEK formula, used to determine state allocation to schools, to $4,000, its highest level ever. They also restored transportation and employee health insurance funding that was not in Gov. Bevin’s original proposal, fully funded Family Resource and Youth Services Centers, and added around $7 million to coal county schools that lost significant funding due to a decline in coal mining.

Losers in education include charter schools, which after receiving funding for one year in 2017, were left out of the state budget in 2018. Lawmakers also didn’t pass a measure that would have offered tax credits to individuals and companies who donate money for charter school scholarships.

Higher education is among all state agencies who will have to suffer a 6.25 percent cut in state funding. That cut is partially offset by $31 million in performance-based funding, but some public universities have already announced staffing and program cuts. Universities also now have the power to reduce tenured faculty when a program is eliminated.

Losers include private prisons. Gov. Bevin had proposed $38 million in funding, due to a forecast that Kentucky’s state-operated prisons would run out of space for inmates next year. But the money disappeared in the final budget.

Public employees could also be considered losers. While supporters of SB 1, the public pension reform bill insist no current employees or retirees, especially teachers, would be affected, new teacher hires would not come under the current defined benefits pension plan, but be placed in a 401 (a) defined contributions system. Opponents of the change say this will impact the number of those who enter the teaching profession. Lawmakers did allocate $3.3 billion over the next two years to shore up the public pension plans, which face an unfunded liability of $40 to $60 billion.

In the “too soon to tell” category are all Kentuckians. Some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, warned that bills dropped on their desks at the last minute could have unintended consequences, but they won’t know until August, when constituents come up to them on the street and ask them if they know what they did to them when the results of the legislation finally take effect.

All enacted legislation takes effect in mid-July, 90 days after lawmakers adjourn, with the exception of those that have an emergency clause and take effect upon signing by the governor and those with a specified date, such as the budget, which takes effect July 1.

Tom Latek is the statehouse reporter in Frankfort for Kentucky Today.

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