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Legislature attacks ‘complex’ budgeting process

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By Jimmy Higdon

As temperatures plummeted to near record lows across the Commonwealth on Jan. 2, state’s lawmakers convened the 2014 Regular Session.
Our biggest task this year – as with every 60-day “long session” – will be writing the state government’s biennial budget. It’s a job that’s even more complex as we continue the hard uphill climb out of the worst recession in recent history.
Recovery has been slow and revenues, though growing, aren’t matching our needs. State economists are predicting a $500 million increase in funds over the next biennium. But a lot of that is already spoken for to cover increased health care costs, pension funding and other necessary expenses. No one ever gets everything they want in the budget process, but this year the decisions will be especially difficult.
One of our top priorities, as always, will be education initiatives and funding. The state has made great strides in recent years and we want to keep that momentum going. We’ll look at the training needs of teachers and the unmet needs of students. We’ll consider ways to improve our scholarship and financial aid programs at the post-secondary level. And we’ll look at different funding options available to ensure every child in Kentucky is getting the best education possible.
Our war on drugs will continue this year – and until victory is won. In recent years we’ve tackled prescription drug abuse and methamphetamine production. This year we’ll be turning our attention to the recent spike in heroin abuse. According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, heroin overdose deaths increased six-fold from 22 in 2011 to 143 in 2012. Last year, the number was even higher. Lawmakers have already introduced several proposals to reverse this sad trend, including stiffer penalties for trafficking. One thing is sure: We aren’t going to sit idly by and let drugs of any kind ravage our state and its people.
One of our first orders of business this week was a joint session of the House and Senate to receive the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth address. Included in his agenda are public safety and public health measures, educational and training opportunities and job growth proposals of interest to many lawmakers.
As he has in years past, the Governor continued to advocate for tax reform and expanded gambling as ways to increase revenues. Historically, both of these issues have faced major obstacles. Not everyone agrees that either method is effective in raising necessary funds. We’ll see how they fare this time, once we have the details of concrete proposals.
The bills we consider will be as wide in focus as they are in reach, touching many facets of life for every single Kentuckian. Health care, education, public protection, veterans and military affairs, the Constitution, criminal justice, agriculture and the environment, roads, jobs, state services. We’ll talk about them all – and more – before the final gavel falls in April.  
Only about 10 percent of all bills filed this year will make it to the law books at the end. And there’s no way of knowing which those will be. I take seriously my responsibility to approve only the best, most effective legislation, but I also need input from constituents like you to do my job well.
I will continue to write each week to keep you updated. I invite you to come to Frankfort to watch the legislature in action first-hand. If you can’t make the long trek, there are still many other ways to stay involved and informed during the 2014 General Assembly. My website hosts updated information and it is www.jimmyhigdon.com. In addition, the Kentucky Legislature home page, www.lrc.ky.gov, provides information on each of the Commonwealth’s senators and representatives, including our phone numbers, addresses and committee assignments. The site provides a bill tracking service, committee meeting schedules and many other helpful tools.
Also, you can call me at 1-800-381-7181 and at my home, 270-692-6945. I appreciate any input and welcome your questions and comments.
Other resources include our eNews page, www.lrc.ky.gov/pubinfo/listserv.htm, you can subscribe to frequent e-mail updates on what’s happening at the Capitol. In addition, the General Assembly has its own blog, Capitol Notes, www.lrc.ky.gov/pubinfo/capitol_notes.htm, that will allow you to receive legislative updates at your leisure.
You may access meetings and chamber proceedings streaming live or archived online at www.ket.org.  
You can also stay in touch with General Assembly action in the following ways:
• A taped message containing information on legislative committee meetings is updated daily at 1-800-633-9650.
• To check the status of a bill, you may call the toll-free Bill Status Line at 1-866-840-2835.
• To leave a message for any legislator, call the General Assembly’s toll-free Message Line at 1-800-372-7181. People with hearing difficulties may leave messages for lawmakers by calling the TTY Message Line at 1-800-896-0305.
• You may write any legislator by sending a letter with the lawmaker’s name to: Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601.