Friday, February 24

 

When you spend all week, and part of every weekend, immersed in legislative detail and constituent input, a little relief is in order.

My family found exactly that last Sunday at the farm of Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican who represents Shelby, Henry, Trimble, Carroll and a little bit of Jefferson County, and who has a serious farm pond full of fish. My kids loved that last part. It was their first real piscatorial expedition. It was all red worms and bobbers.

Watching the kids have so much fun was great, but I also loved spending time with a colleague who is a real gentleman. He and I disagree on many issues, but I have great respect for him, and great rapport with him. That's how things ought to be up here in Frankfort. That's how you get things done.

We got a lot done this week, including several bills that relate to education.

First I'll mention Senate Bill 107, because the situation at the University of Louisville is of such great concern to me and of such great importance to so many people in my district, not to mention our community as a whole. As you might recall, last summer the governor unilaterally removed the entire board of trustees at the University of Louisville. His actions were a direct violation of existing statutes that required board members be removed only “for cause.” This led to a reversal from the court, and a reprimand from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (“SACS”) that placed U of L’s accreditation at risk. 

The governor waited until the new majority took over in January, and rammed a bill through in the first week of the legislative session that officially gave him the power to once again wipe away the board of trustees at U of L. I voted against that bill. SACS had already warned us come up with a process that minimized political influence over UL’s board, and I feared SB 12 put the University’s accreditation in greater danger. 

Regardless of what happened with SB 12, I do not believe anyone in Frankfort wants to see our state’s second largest university lose its accreditation. SB 107 was introduced after the passage of SB 12 in an effort to appease SACS and standardize the removal process of board members at all of Kentucky’s public universities. 

There is reason to believe that the approach set out in the bill for removing members of governing boards will pass muster at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. First, the bill was truly approached in a bipartisan way. I worked closely with the Senate President and the University of Louisville to craft legislation that will satisfy SACS. Second, the Senate President consulted SACS, and also met with members of the board and the president of every university to get their input and approval for SB 107. 

As with most compromise bills, the final product is far from perfect. I think it still gives the institution of the governor – not just this governor, any governor – too much influence over our university boards. I am convinced, however, it will help restore U of L’s accreditation. That is the most immediate existential threat facing our university, so I voted in favor of SB 107. 

We also passed Senate Bill 153, which creates a system for performance-based funding that rewards our public campuses for graduating more students – an important goal, if Kentucky is to develop a workforce that fits the emerging economy. It also puts special emphasis on training in disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and math, which is required for so many new job opportunities.

A work group that included Kentucky's pubic campus presidents came up with the funding formula. I still don’t love the idea of performance funding – a topic we dealt with last session and now are forced to initiate. This bill, however, does a pretty good job given the circumstances. My hope is that it can be applied while also protecting the arts and humanities. Most employers, no matter what the job, want workers who are broadly educated, nimble in adapting to change and skillful in communicating. We can produce better-prepared students; we shouldn’t produce automatons.  

In another effort at expanding education for Kentuckians – this time behind bars – we passed Senate Bill 120, the criminal justice reform bill. Nearly 40% of our prison population is attributable to recidivism. Of those who return, only 5% have committed a new offense. Most simply violate a condition of probation or parole, such as finding a job. We have to do a better job preparing the 95% of inmates who will be released for life outside of jail. 

I helped develop SB 120 as a member of the Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. Among other things, it will give many convicted felons the opportunity to obtain professional licenses for jobs like nursing, and allow inmates to earn wages from private employers. There are exceptions barring perpetrators of some sex crimes and violent offenses from participating. 

The bill also would establish a pilot program for people on parole who struggle with substance abuse, requiring them to attend therapy sessions and take other steps to overcome their addictions. 

In most areas of criminal justice, the goal should be returning convicts to productive citizenship and stable employment. Equally important, we need to do something about our bulging jails and prisons. This bill won't do everything it should to address those problems, like restoring voting rights to felons who have paid their debt to society, but it moves us a couple of steps forward. 

Of course citizenship training should begin long before anyone gets into trouble with the law, and it ought to involve everyone. Along that line we passed Senate Bill 186, which mandates that students qualify for graduation by passing a civics test. It will comprise 100 questions drawn from those used in the exam administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to those seeking citizenship.

The citizens of Louisville have special reason to pay attention to what's going on in Frankfort. Not only have three charter school bills been filed, with Jefferson County one of the prime targets, but bills aimed at school choice in JCPS, our local ban on the use of plastic bags for yard waste, and the laws governing our Metro Council and Mayor have all been the subject of bills debated this week. 

Most of these bills were dealt with in the House. They are generally short-sighted and now come to the Senate for discussion and debate. With relatively few legislative days remaining, my hope is we do not rush to pass bills that will set our City and our school system behind.  

This week the Senate did debate SB 222, the Republican majority’s attempt to dictate the terms of local government in Louisville Metro. The issue was brought up for the first time during a special 8:00 a.m. committee hearing yesterday morning. I voted no in committee for the reason that, as presented, the proposal was unconstitutional, obviously rushed, and would have imposed hundreds of thousands in new costs for partisan council staffing. This seemed especially strange coming from the Party that hates new spending, bureaucratic bloat and unfunded mandates. Go figure.

There were numerous alterations to SB 222 – many of them good, like not allowing the governor to appoint our mayor or council members – proposed during the committee hearing. So many, in fact, that it quickly became obvious the council itself was split on the issue. Mayor Greg Fischer also attended and forcefully testified against the bill. 

After the hearing, members of the metro council came together and made even more changes to the bill. However, there wasn’t enough time to incorporate all of these changes into SB 222 before we voted on it today. For that reason, I voted against SB 222 on the floor. I will watch to see if the additional adjustments are made in the House. 

Another measure that flew through the Senate, SB 8, targets Planned Parenthood, which currently operates its only Kentucky clinic in Louisville. Popularly called the “Defund Planned Parenthood Bill”, SB 8 puts Planned Parenthood at the back of the line to receive federal taxpayer dollars. Kentucky gets about $5.6 million in federal Title X funds, which are supposed to go to family planning and reproductive health programs. Approximately $330,000 of that went to Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. 

This bill plays on the negative association between Planned Parenthood and abortion, but ignores the reality that (a) Planned Parenthood does not currently provide abortion services in Kentucky, and (b) the Hyde Amendment already prohibits taxpayer money from being used to fund abortions. This bill will simply reduce the amount of money dedicated to basic women’s healthcare and family planning services. I voted no, but the bill passed 31-6.

Good legislation just doesn’t happen. It takes skill, cooperation, and careful attention to detail. These are all things I should have kept in mind after our fishing expedition to the Hornback farm. Watching my wife’s face as the fish flailed around in our newly remodeled kitchen caused me to rush a little bit too. My family has a chance to digest the bluegill we caught, in spite of my less-than-expert work with a filet knife. The really delicious thing we brought home was cell phone video of Wilson and Clara lifting the wigglers out of the water. 

That was our best work of the week.

Here, quickly, as some other bills that passed in the Senate;

  • SB 21 – Creates a system for the use of experimental treatments for terminal illnesses, allowing eligible patients to use investigational drugs, biological products or devices. The bill passed 38-0, and I voted yes.
     
  • SB 150 – Tries to regulate the contents of advertising related to long-term care facilities. The bill passed 25-12, but I voted no because the measure is of questionable constitutionality as a matter of commercial free speech. 
     
  • SB 92 - Prohibits vehicle headlights from emitting anything other than white light; requiring that all such lights meet United States Department of Transportation regulations; prohibiting lights that appear to emit a solid color other than white; and, prohibiting headlamp covers or film that change the color of the light emitted. The bill passed 36-1, and I voted yes.
     
  • Senate Bill 147 - Removes the maximum number of advanced practice doctoral programs that may be offered by the six comprehensive universities. It passed unanimously.  
     
  • SB 42 - Permits a peace officer to make an arrest for a violation of KRS 508.030, assault in the 4th degree, when the violation occurs in a hospital and the officer has probable cause. The bill passed 38-0.
     
  • SB 82 - Allows current and retired members of the United States military and their eligible dependents the use of the morale, welfare, and recreation facilities under the control of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs. The bill passed 38-0, and I voted yes.
     
  • SB 122 - Establishes a Gold Star Sons and Gold Star Daughters special license plate. I voted yes, and the bill passed 38-0.
     
  • SB 116 - Requires individuals licensed or certified in another state in the field of medical imaging and radiation therapy to be licensed by the Board of Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy if they have (1) graduated from a post-secondary institution, (2) passed a national certifying examination, (3) are licensed in good standing in another jurisdiction, (4) have at least 5 years of experience, and (5) have maintained continuing education requirements. I voted yes, and the bill passed 38-0.
     
  • SB 89 - Requires insurance coverage for United States Food and Drug Administration-approved tobacco cessation medicines and services recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force. The bill passed 35-2, and I voted yes.
     
  • SB 101 - Allows a pharmacist to administer any immunization to children ages 9 to 17 years. The bill passed 37-0, and I voted for it.
     
  • SB 153 – Establishes a system of performance-based funding for public post-secondary institutions. The bill passed 36-1, and I supported it.
     
  • SB 163 – Removes responsibility of state government organization analysis from the Office of the State Budget Director and requires the secretary of the Personnel Cabinet to be responsible for state government organization analysis. I voted yes as the bill passed, 37-0.
     
  • SB 95 – I voted yes, and the bill passed 37-0.
     
  • SB 129 - Establishes a process to designate a lay caregiver to be contacted upon discharge from a hospital. The vote was 37-0, and I voted yes. 
     
  • SB 145 - Requires the group primarily responsible for the circulation and filing of a local option petition to pay actual election costs as determined by the county judge/executive. The vote was 30-6, and I voted yes.
     
  • Senate Bill 86 - Relates to domestic and dating violence and abuse reporting. Passed on the consent calendar.
     
  • Senate Bill 119 - Sets aside money in each year of the 2016-2018 fiscal biennium to the Council on Post-secondary Education to fully fund veterinary medicine and optometry slots. I voted for this bill, and it passed 37-0.
     
  • Senate Bill 161 – Allows national background check when hiring classified employees for a school system. I voted yes, and this bill passed 37-0.
     
  • Senate Bill 114 – Increases the required minimum tort liability coverage for motor vehicle insurance arising out of property damage to $25,000. All 38 senators voted yes.
 
Robert Pieroni