Before I give you a rundown of last week’s meetings and activities in Frankfort, I want to address something that has been on my heart. Did you know that in any given year, an estimated one in seven Kentucky children are abused? We all need to be good friends and neighbors to ensure that our children remain safe and healthy. Teachers and school staff may not have the opportunity to see the signs of abuse as the school year begins a little different this year. Still, we can do our part by being aware and caring and remembering that our future depends on our children. If you are concerned about potential child abuse and neglect, please call 1-800-752-6200.
While COVID-19 forces us to change our short-term focus, our long-term priority in the Kentucky General Assembly remains the same: to make Kentucky the best place to live and work. That is why these interim joint committees are so important. It allows us to continue to see the impact that the coronavirus response and mitigation have had on many aspects of life in Kentucky. These are just a few of last week’s highlights:
Interim Joint Committee on Transportation: Jobs go where infrastructure lead them. That is why it is crucial to pay close attention to our road budget to ensure we have strategically planned and well-built infrastructure. The final fiscal year road fund report presented by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet updated the committee on the road budget shortfall of $60.3 million. COVID has certainly impacted motor fuel tax revenues because of the shutdown and the difficulty in collecting various fees and licenses due to various government offices being closed.
Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary: Members of the committee heard testimony about an issue that I am very concerned about — the potential evictions stemming from nonpayment of rent. Many of you may remember that the Governor suspended eviction proceedings at the end of March, but that has created a great deal of confusion as many Kentuckians reportedly believed they did not have to pay rent even if they could. After hearing testimony, it sounds like both housing advocates and landlords agree that there are many Kentuckians who cannot pay rent due to COVID. They are pushing for a rental assistance program similar to what is working in other states. However, it also appears that many evictions may need to move forward for other reasons, including damage to property or nonpayment that started before COVID. In those cases, these folks need the ability to protect their property from further damage or loss. There is a great deal of confusion around the Governor’s order because the Supreme Court effectively nullified it by opening the courts to regular eviction cases as of Aug. 1. Now no one — including the sheriff’s offices that serve evictions notices — knows what to do. We must figure out how to navigate this issue effectively and quickly.
Jail and Corrections Reform Task Force: In the second meeting of this task force, members looked at various reentry services. These services can be great tools to keep those leaving jail or prison from going back to the lifestyles that put them in prison. When used properly, these programs are a proven approach that can save lives and cut costs in corrections. Some provide job training, life skills, computer, and internet classes, in addition to supporting individuals with job placement. Providing second chances and giving former inmates hope not only decreases recidivism but provides communities with productive members.
Interim Joint Committee on Education: Dr. Jason Glass, the new Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education, was introduced and talked about budget shortfalls and looked forward to working with the legislature in the coming months. The meeting also featured Eric Kennedy, Director of Governmental Relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association, and Jim Flynn, Executive Director for the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents. They shared their professional opinions that reopening schools should be left to individual districts. They testified that because of the vast differences in communities across the state, there should not be a one size fits all approach to this issue for providing education and reopening school. The impact of COVID-19 on SEEK funding was discussed this week in the Budget Review Subcommittee on Education. SEEK funding is the amount of state funding that each district receives based on the number of students they serve. The state generally calculates it based on the average daily attendance numbers. The legislature was able to temporarily adjust that when we were still in the 2020 Regular Session. With the passage of SB 170, we allowed schools to substitute attendance from either of the past two years as they moved to remote nontraditional learning.
Interim Joint Committee on Appropriations and Revenue: No one was surprised when the State Budget Director shared his concerns about the 2021 budget. The impact of COVID and the state’s response to the pandemic have led to a major decrease in the revenue we expect to receive to pay for programs going forward. Like in households across our state, spending will have to be evaluated. The budget director placed much of the blame on a need for more federal stimulus dollars. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the federal government has already provided more than a billion dollars to our state government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security ACT (CARES). We know this will be the most challenging budget prepared in modern times. I am still concerned about asking for more federal money and pretending it is not tax dollars just because it comes from the federal government. It is important to note that Kentucky ended the fiscal year with a $177.5 million surplus because we reopened the current year budget and made changes when COVID-19 hit. We will need every dime as we craft the next year’s budget, which is why we required any surplus to go into the rainy day fund.
Remember that even though we are not in a legislative session, I am still a voice for you here in Frankfort and want to hear from you regarding concerns or issues. I can be reached through the toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181 or here at home. You can also contact me via e-mail at Samara.Heavrin@lrc.ky.gov. Also, please feel free to visit the legislature’s website at www.legislature.ky.gov.