Friday, February 17

 
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Everyone is talking about politics. The insanity coming out of Washington and the change in Frankfort has energized people in a way I haven’t seen over the last five years. I’m about to be temporarily suspended from making “brief” runs to the Kroger on Bardstown Road because the produce section turns into a town hall on pensions, the bread aisle is charter schools, and the trip to the dairy section becomes a wonderful smorgasbord of questions about the issues we confront on a daily basis. My wife asked our five-year-old when we returned from a recent trip to the store, “how many people did daddy talk to?” It was easier when he couldn’t count.

But I love it. And that energy was on full display in Frankfort with huge contingents of students, teachers, advocates for equality, refugees, and non-profits lobbying for and against bills that could impact their lives. They literally forced lawmakers to walk through their rally on the way to the Capitol.

The increased attention has the legislature focused as well. Let's begin with some good news: We got a lot of work done this week.

I brought my guitar to the office, but I didn't have time to play it.

This week's mail brought news that my young constituent Anna-Maria Beck has been named one of the two top youth volunteers in the 22nd annual Spirit of Community competition. How good is that? She is an amazing young woman who demonstrates true commitment. Raising funds and awareness to benefit young cancer patients, while she has been fighting through her own surgeries and chemo treatments, is a profile in courage.

While we're cheering, how about one for the Fern Creek (also in my district) boys basketball team, which, going into Friday night's home game against Moore, was ranked No. 1 in the state by MaxPreps?

Checking this week's legislative box score, I definitely didn't cheer the Senate's passage of SB 75, which will dump more money into Kentucky politics. When the House follows suit, this legislation will increase the influence of high-dollar donors and corporations in our elections.

The bill doubles what can be contributed to a state political campaign. Individuals and political action committees will be allowed to donate $2,000 in the primary and general elections, as opposed to the current $1,000 limit. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the bill is that it allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts to a Party’s “building fund”.

I opposed this when Democrats held the House and the governor's office. I still oppose it, and I voted no on this bill. We should be walking away from the egregious 2010 Citizens United decision, not passing local laws that give the very rich and the special interests even bigger megaphones.

The other big issue this week was Senate Bill 1, a major piece of education reform three years in the making. Important policy changes require input from both parties to be effective, and this bill serves as an example of how government can, and should, work. Senator Mike Wilson, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, thoughtfully sought input from teachers, administrators, superintendents, JCTA, KEA, the Kentucky Department of Education, and members of the minority party in an effort to get it right. In the end, everyone involved endorsed the bill.

The final product, which passed unanimously this morning, addresses real areas of concern without rolling back the standards passed by the General Assembly in 2009.  Dubbed the “let teachers’ teach” bill, the key provisions allow the reviewing and updating of standards in math, science, language arts and social studies; provide more local control; and let local districts develop their own systems for evaluating teachers, principals and certified staff, within guidelines set by the state Department of Education.

Mercy Academy students during their visit to Frankfort.

Mercy Academy students during their visit to Frankfort.

The bad news from the Capitol is that the House is cranking up legislation aimed at Louisville. Undermining merger, limiting school choice, and allowing the governor to fill a mayoral vacancy are just a few examples of legislation being considered in the Lower Chamber. Somebody needs to remind the Republicans that their party is supposed to believe in government closest to the people, not gratuitous meddling in the local affairs of the city that gets back 50 cents on every dollar it sends to Frankfort. I'll be watching carefully to see if any of this mischief makes it to the Senate.

Occasionally good and bad news arrives together. The good news is I had a wonderful visit from several refugees who have come to Kentucky in search of a better life. A young man from Burma explained that he finished his high school course work two years early and is studying biology as a freshman at the University of Louisville. Another young person from Somalia explained how he spent 10 years in a refugee camp but is now taking classes at JCTC.  He hopes to go to U of L to become a social worker, and has dreams of eventually becoming the president of an organization that helps other refugees get settled.

The bad news is that this group was smaller than in years past. The refugees who attended told me that, due to recent events in Washington, many were afraid to visit Kentucky’s Capitol. Everyone should feel welcome in this building, and I was honored to host them in my office. 

Sometimes good news comes in disguise.

Take the day we spent listening to hours of testimony on SB 120, a significant bill on criminal justice reform. As a member of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Committee, it was good to see the Governor (a strong conservative) flanked by the Justice Secretary (a former Democratic Rep and Chairman of the Judiciary Committee) and the Labor Secretary (a former 1st team all SEC quarterback and 9 year veteran of the NFL), all pushing in the same direction and advocating some of the reforms we championed. But I also wanted the committee to have time to hear the bill I had on the agenda, a measure that would prevent creditors from garnishing your health savings account.

After officialdom finished talking, we heard from citizens who felt victims hadn't been fully heard on criminal justice reform. The spirited hearing was another reminder that the capital really does belong to the people of Kentucky. However, testimony went so long that the morning meeting had to be adjourned and continued later until in the day.

When my bill was finally called at about 6:00 pm., committee members were ready to get up and go. Compared to the 173 pages in the criminal justice reform, my one sentence, common sense change was a welcome relief. On the way to the table someone called for a “motion on the bill.”
Calls of “second”, “third” and “me too”, could be heard before I took my seat. The Chairman smiled and asked whether I wanted to testify. I simply said, “Mr. Chairman, my grandfather always said ‘never sell past the close.’” My bill passed unanimously and now heads to the floor for consideration. 

A final note, prompted by the good news that Kentucky's own Sturgill Simpson just won a Grammy. Like Sturgill says,

Motor oil is motor oil
Just keep your engine clean
Keep your eyes on the prize
Everything will be fine
Long as you stay in school
Stay off the hard stuff
And keep it between the lines

Let’s hope we keep it between the lines for the remainder of the session. That would be good news.

If you're still with me, you can check this roster of bills passed by the Senate this week:

  • SB 99, which would relieve a landlord of liability when a tenant's dog chomps down on someone, passed the Senate. You may remember this was originally SB 12, but was subbed out at the last minute for the bill reorganizing the UL Board of Trustees.
  • Senate Bill 104 passed 37-0. It is designed to stop the “spiking” of state workers' pensions with high salaries in the last five years of employment.
  • Senate Bill 14, which passed 36-0, attempts to do something about the opioid epidemic that has hit Louisville, and the rest of Kentucky, very hard. The penalty for trafficking heroin or fentanyl (a powerful synthetic that's many times more potent) would be raised to a class C felony for a first offense.
  • Senate Bill 78, which passed 25-8 with two “pass” votes, would make all of Kentucky's school campuses smoke free. After all that we have learned about the human and civic cost of using tobacco products, it was easy for me to vote for this bill. Interestingly, the split on this was more rural/urban and Democrat/Republican.
  • Senate Bill 56, which was approved 34-2, would force drivers to keep at least a three-foot distance when passing a bicycle. I voted “yes.”
  • Senate Bill 19, which passed 36-0, would give parents the right to place a “security freeze” on their child’s credit report and would allow guardians of vulnerable citizens to do the same.
  • Senate Bill 61 would mandate a hole-punch system and change the issuance system for disability parking placards, to help ensure that they are being used by those who need them. 
  • Senate Bill 117, which passed 35-0, is intended to help military veterans obtain provisional teaching certification.
  • Senate Bill 73 passed 34-0. It categorizes an “autocycle” as a motorcycle for registration purposes and authorizes the regulation of its use.
  • Senate Bill 79, a technical change defining a "direct primary care membership agreement" and establishing “conditions for services” under such an agreement, passed 34-1. I voted “yes.”
  • SB 38 passed. It's a measure cracking down on people stealing timber, it makes an individual liable for three times the value of the stumpage and three times the value of any damages to the property, when he or she takes timber without legal right or title.
  • SB 128 passed. It's a measure to help consumers fight back against storm-chasing roofing contractors.
 
Robert Pieroni