For our region, there was both good news and bad to come out of the Capitol last week.
The good news, of course, was the Public Service Commission’s decision on Kentucky Power’s requested rate increase. The net effect is that most people should see their monthly bills decline about four percent for similar use.
Given the cold weather we have had over the past month, however, that will not be readily apparent at first, and I worry that many will still be unable to pay rates that are, without question, still unreasonably high. As far as I am concerned, we may have won a battle last week, but the main conflict continues.
The more troubling news last week came from Governor Bevin’s proposed two-year budget. If enacted, it would be especially tough for us in eastern Kentucky.
Overall, it would cut state spending significantly at a time when there have already been about $2 billion in cuts over the past 10 years. The governor has talked about the need for tax reform, to look at potential loopholes that are no longer benefiting the economy, but he has never offered anything concrete.
His plan to reduce state spending would perhaps have the greatest impact on elementary and secondary education, which would lose about $200 million, and higher education, which would receive about $80 million less.
A major portion of the proposed cuts to our public schools comes in a steep reduction in the state’s portion of their transportation costs. The state has not been able to increase this amount over the past decade, but his plan would wipe out well over $100 million and have the districts cover that with their reserves.
The truth is, most districts in our region are struggling just to maintain what they are required to keep for emergencies because of higher energy costs, reduced property taxes and general inflation. This move, if enacted, will force schools to keep more buses past their useful lifespan and limit the routes they take every school day.
The budget also would keep the state from paying money for new textbooks, and it would even stop providing health insurance to retired teachers who are not yet eligible for Medicare. Many are on fixed incomes and should not be expected to take on a benefit I believe they have fully earned.
There are many other ways this budget would have a negative impact on eastern Kentucky. He proposes to cut about 70 programs completely, for example, and those include the Kentucky Coal Academy, which gives our miners critical training to do their job as safely as possible and skills they can transfer to other professions.
The highly popular Kentucky Coal County Completion Scholarship and Robinson Scholars would also end, even though they have meant so much to many of our families. The former uses our own severance dollars to help local college students finish their four-year degree close to home, while the latter has helped first generation college-bound students from 29 eastern Kentucky counties attend the University of Kentucky.
I think if the governor had talked with one miner who had benefited from the Kentucky Coal Academy, or one student who went to college because of the Coal County Scholarship or Robinson Scholars, or if he had talked to one senior citizen who had used the farmer’s market voucher, he would have thought twice about removing these initiatives.
Regardless, I am committed to doing all I can to make sure as many of these programs survive, because they have proven their worth. As our region continues to deal with the aftermath of the Great Recession and the steep decline in coal production, we just don’t have much more to give.
On a more positive note, there are some areas where I think the budget does good things. For one, it provides substantial funding for our public retirement systems, although that will need closer scrutiny to see if there are other issues besides the problem with health insurance for retired teachers.
There is also clear need to give law enforcement the updated equipment they have to have, and to give more resources to prosecutors, public advocates and social workers. Our work to address the opioid epidemic that continues to do so much harm to the commonwealth will benefit from new money as well.
With the legislative session about a fourth over, we are in the period where the hours at the Capitol will begin getting longer and the number of bills passing will start to grow.
I will continue keeping you informed of that work, and hope you will continue letting me know your thoughts and concerns. My address, should you want to write, is Room 429I, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or you can send me an email at Angie.Hatton@ lrc.ky.gov.
Our toll-free message line is 800-372-7181, and if you have a hearing impairment, it is 800- 896-0305.
There is also a lot of information on the General Assembly’s website: www.lrc.ky.gov.