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OPINION: 2016 legislative session comes to a close

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By Jimmy Higdon

The final week of the 2016 General Assembly was marked by the passage of a $21 billion spending plan for the two-year period beginning July 1, and it is being hailed as the most conservative budget the commonwealth has seen in a generation.

Gov. Matt Bevin set the parameters for the state budget debate when he announced his proposed budget in January. He proposed major funding increases to Kentucky’s struggling pension systems and asked other areas of state government to participate in funding reductions.

The compromise budget appropriates $973 million to the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, an additional $186 million to the Kentucky Employee’s Retirement Systems and $125 million in the form of a contribution to the “Permanent Fund,” which will be used accordingly after a mandated external audit of KTRS and KERS.

We invested in the following areas as priorities in the budget:

• $175 million for the budget reserve trust fund;

• fully funding public schools through 12th grade;

• fully funding anti-heroin legislation from 2015;

• fully funding Kentucky Educational Television (KET);

• restoring funding to the Brain Injury Alliance of Kentucky;

• preserving the Kentucky One Stop Business Portal;

• allocating a $5 million bond pool for improvements to Kentucky state parks;

• and authorizing bonds to renovate and expand the Lexington Convention Center.

We also passed a two-year road plan, which funds the Transportation Cabinet. It includes $127 million for Appalachian development, $280 million for bridge repair and replacement, nearly $300 million for interstate maintenance, $680 million for national highways and $421 million for surface transportation. It includes $2.345 billion in federal funds to cover projects across the state.

While the budget agreement grabbed the headlines, we continued work on other important legislation during the 60-day session that started in January.

Some bills that have become law include:

• Senate Bill 56 targets habitual drunken drivers. It changes what is known in legal circles as the “look-back period” to 10 years from five years. In other words, if someone is convicted of drunken driving multiple times in a 10-year period the penalties for the crimes may be increased.

• Senate Bill 63 seeks to eliminate a backlog of more than 3,000 sexual assault examination kits dating back to the 1970s. It requires Kentucky’s more than 300 police departments and 120 sheriff’s departments to pick up sexual assault kits from hospitals within five days’ notice from a hospital that the evidence is available, submit the kits to the state crime lab within 30 days, prohibit the destruction of any kits and notify victims of the progress and results of the tests. It also requires the average completion date for kits tested not to exceed 90 days by July 2018 and not to exceed 60 days by July 2020. It currently takes about eight months for a kit to be tested once it has been submitted to the lab.

• Senate Bill 216 removes county clerks’ signatures from marriage licenses and allows for only one marriage license form. The new single-form marriage license for Kentucky is aimed at resolving the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of religious objections from county clerks.

• Senate Bill 11 is an omnibus alcohol bill that serves to accommodate our thriving bourbon industry by increasing the amount of bourbon that can be sampled and sold on distillery tours. Another section of the bill allows Kentucky microbreweries to double their annual production levels to 50,000 barrels and small farm wineries to double their production to 100,000 gallons.

• House Bill 40 allows convicted felons to clear some offenses off their records after serving their sentences. Five years after that sentence ends, they could then pay a fee and have the courts consider removing the offenses from their records. Without a felony record, they could also seek to restore their voting rights. It does not apply to perpetrators of violent or sex crimes.

• House Bill 428 amends Kentucky’s dog-fighting ban to also make it illegal to promote the practice. HB 428 makes the owning, possessing, keeping, breeding, training, selling or transferring of dogs intended for use in fighting a felony punishable by one year to five years in prison. In legal parlance, it makes it the “furtherance” of the act of dog fighting illegal in Kentucky – the 50th state to do so. However, it distinguishes farmers who use animals to protect their livestock from people who fight dogs for a sport.

While this legislative session is over, the work in Frankfort continues. To provide a continuity of study and action between sessions, interim joint committees are formed. Besides discussing and studying issues in-depth, the interim committees also draft and approve bills for pre-filing for the 2017 Regular Session.