By Ray S. Jones II
FRANKFORT, Ky. — I was honored Thursday evening to join Kentucky’s new Governor, Matt Bevin, and other state legislative leaders at an activity that has become a tradition for the opening week of the Legislative Session — the 21st Annual Kentucky Chamber Day. The event attracted 1,500 business leaders and officials from across the Commonwealth who came to hear opinions on some of the top issues from our legislative leaders and the Governor.
I spoke on several issues that I believe are important to eastern Kentucky and the Commonwealth – one of those was the importance of coal and the coal severance tax revenue. We cannot power this country without Kentucky’s coal and the coal severance tax needs to come back to our coal-producing counties. I have filed legislation, Senate Bill 21 that directs that 100 percent of the coal severance tax return to the coal-producing counties.
Of course, the most important task of legislators this session – and the topic on everyone’s mind Thursday night – was a balanced two-year budget. As a member of Senate leadership, I have a seat at the table during this process and will continue to work to bring money back home to my district as well as to ensure that we have necessary funds for education, public safety, roads and our most vulnerable citizens.
The vetting of expenditures and revenue avenues makes this a time-consuming process. Even though discussions are underway, the first step is to hear the Governor’s proposal, which will be announced January 26 at a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives. That will be followed later by the House’s budget proposal. The Senate will review what the House suggests and will then write its on budget. The final days of session will focus on ironing out the differences in the plans.
I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise that everyone in Frankfort has their own ideas about how to spend – and save – the state’s money. While the budget bill can sometimes produce impassioned, heated, and lengthy debates, lawmakers are responsible for coming to an agreement in the end. The state constitution requires that we make sure the state’s budget is balanced before the last gavel falls.
As the state continues to claw its way out of the recession, the recent budget reports offer some promising numbers. The current forecast is that there will be between $250 million to $300 million in new revenue. State budget officials attribute much of the growth to higher-than-expected receipts from personal income and business taxes as well as Kentucky’s sales tax. However, let it be noted that at the Chamber Day, the Governor said that various state agencies have requested up to an additional $2.1 billion over the next two years. He says the agencies are not going to get it. We will know more about his intent when he releases his plan.
One of the biggest challenges will be addressing the shortfall in the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System. It will need an additional $520.4 million in state contributions to be fully funded next fiscal year. That’s in addition to around $380 million paid out to the system from the state general fund this fiscal year.
While the budget will be our priority, there will be other issues we will be asked to legislate. The bills will cover everything from expanding voting rights for felons, strengthening Kentucky’s castle doctrine, strengthening the drunken driving law, changing the process of issuing marriage licenses, changing Kentucky’s election cycle, regulating drones, creating a sales tax holiday for school supplies and clothes, and protecting children from sex offenders.
During the opening week, I filed legislation to protect our Second Amendment rights. Senate Joint Resolution 36 urges the Governor of Virginia and the Virginia Attorney General to restore reciprocal recognition of concealed carry weapons licenses from Kentucky. This legislation is in response to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s recent decision to cease recognition of concealed deadly weapon licenses from Kentucky and 24 other states. I was glad to have over half of the Senate members – both democrats and republicans – sign on as co-sponsors to this resolution.
As we review the various bills that come before us, it is always important to remember those who make it possible for us to have the freedom to debate these issues. This week, I filed legislation honoring some of eastern Kentucky’s fallen Vietnam heroes. As the son of a Vietnam combat veteran, I understand the sacrifice of our service men and women.
As we move through the session, I need you to play your role in our representative democracy. I welcome your input as we consider legislation that affects issues important to you. You can leave a message for me by calling the toll-free message line at (800) 372-7181. Citizens with hearing impairments may leave messages for lawmakers at the TTY message line at (808) 896-0305. You can also e-mail me directly at [email protected]