SENATOR PHILLIP WHEELER’S LEGISLATIVE UPDATE
This week’s 30-day Regular Session activity ended with dozens of bills on the Governor’s desk. Having already completed 28 legislative days, both the House and the Senate raced to approve bills through the process until the figurative and literal eleventh hour.
This week marked the beginning of the veto recess, which means Tuesday, March 16, was the last day lawmakers could pass bills and still have the opportunity to override any gubernatorial vetoes before the final day of the legislative session. The Governor has ten days to sign a bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it.
The Kentucky General Assembly approved the second half of the state’s 24-month spending plan this week after uncertainties from COVID-19 cut budget negotiation short nearly a year ago.
We are continuing to take a careful and conservative approach as we continue to navigate the pandemic’s uncertainty. The state has received a lot of one-time dollars from the federal government through the CARES act and the most recent federal stimulus package. Due to these injections of federal funds into our society’s various sectors, the economic outlook and state revenue may be artificially inflated. There is no sure way of knowing what state revenues or the economy will look like once there is no stimulus money helping to prop things up. It would be financially irresponsible for the state to use one-time dollars to put Kentucky taxpayers on the hook for recurring expenses in future years when we will not lean on federal funds.
An essential aspect of the budget is it maintains legislative authority on the allocation of funds, as required by the Constitution of Kentucky. The bill stipulates that the General Assembly must authorize the use of these monies. Thirty-Seven million in federal dollars has been designated to provide grants to detect, diagnose, trace and monitor COVID-19 infections in congregate and vulnerable population settings. Additionally, $10 million in state dollars will go to the School Facilities Construction Commission for schools recently damaged by flooding.
I have received many messages and calls from constituents concerned that the budget that the General Assembly passed this week did not fully fund the health insurance plan for retired teachers ineligible for Medicare. THIS IS 100% FALSE. Last year, the General Assembly approved a budget that allocated General Fund monies to pay the estimated Teachers Retirement System (TRS) health insurance contribution for 2020-2021. It also directed the insurance trust to pay for year two (2021-2022) with any balance remaining from the first year in the trust.
We continued with this approach in the budget we passed this session. This approach allows the state to access overpayments in prior years because General Fund payments regularly exceed the health insurance’s actual cost. These overpayments have never been refunded to the state, but instead have remained in the trust fund. Essentially what this means is that we added money this fiscal year to “excess” money from last year to FULLY FUND the 2021-2022 Actuarial Required Contribution (ARC) to the TRS health insurance trust. I have verified that the health insurance trust fund is very solvent, it can be used in this manner, and this bill will not increase retired teachers’ costs.
Since we are talking about the budget and I know there are also concerns about TRS, I want to add that the current version of the budget also fully funds the actuarially required contribution (ARC) to that retirement system. At more than $1.15 billion, the ARC is almost TWICE what we would pay if we only met our statutory requirement. While this is almost 10 percent of the total $12 billion allocated in the state budget, it is critical to keeping the TRS solvent.
A critical element in the economic growth of our state is people’s access to reliable internet services. Reliable broadband can be the difference in companies determining to locate into our communities. With the reliance on virtual learning for our students this past year, we have seen how a lack of access to internet services only exacerbates Kentucky students’ struggles. Furthermore, as COVID-19 forced us to rely on more virtual services, we have seen growth in telehealth services. Bringing internet access to the areas currently without it can help our economy, education and even improve health outcomes.
With this in mind, the legislature passed House Bill (HB) 320, allocating $250 million of federal money to expand access to broadband connectivity. However, the bills stipulate that no more than $50 million can be spent before April of next year to make sure efforts are deliberate, effective, and will go to the areas of most need. This initial $50 million will get the ball rolling. Legislators will return to session next January to provide ample opportunity to assess the efforts made between now and then to determine the best path forward. The funding will be targeted to utilize existing infrastructure and the experienced workforce through electric co-ops. In reality, the allocated funds will equate to $500 million because the $250 million will be used as matching funds for the projects.
Other bills that have made final passage and that will qualify for a veto override should the Governor veto them include:
HB 95 is a bill that I am joyed to see passed. It is a measure I have been working on diligently since you sent me to represent you in Frankfort. The bill aims to help Kentuckians struggling with diabetes by capping the cost of out-of-pocket insulin at $30 for a 30 day supply. It applies to state-regulated, comprehensive, private health insurance plans and the Kentucky employee health plan. It does not apply to Medicare, Medicaid, or self-funded health plans.
For too long, the high cost of insulin has caused patients to ration their supply, resulting in a loss of life. Others have had to make desperate financial decisions to maintain their access to their insulin. Kentucky ranks eighth in the nation in diabetes prevalence and is the fifth-highest state in diabetes-related deaths. Between 2000 and 2018, the percentage of Kentuckians diagnosed with diabetes doubled. Diabetes can be associated with heart failure, stroke, blindness, and more.
Senate Bill (SB) 8 provides for opting out of mandatory vaccinations for people with religious or conscientiously held beliefs. The bill maintains employer immunization policies for employees of schools, universities, and health care organizations.
House Joint Resolution 77 extends certain COVID-19 and regulations an additional 60 days. This joint resolution, which can carry the force of law, will be effective only if the court ultimately rules in favor of the legislature on pending litigation. The Governor is challenging HB 1 and SBs 1 and 2. Those three bills, if upheld, provide the legislature a seat at the table as life-altering executive decisions are made. It is worth noting that Kentucky is the exception to the rule regarding executive authority during a state of emergency. The bills being challenged by the Governor would merely bring Kentucky more in line with other states in regards to oversight of executive authority during times like these.
Some progress has been made at reaching a compromise on Senate Bill 75. This bill would create a pilot project within the Kentucky Mountain Regional Recreational Authority (KMRRA) counties to permit limited use of ATVs on certain public roadways. I anticipate that a version of SB 75 will emerge from the General Assembly in the last two days of the session. This legislation is desperately needed in Eastern Kentucky for the development of the trail systems.
It is an honor to represent the 31st District in the Kentucky State Senate. Should you have any comments or concerns about these issues or any other public policy issue, please do not hesitate to contact my office. You can reach my office toll-free at 502-564-8100 Ext: 714 or by emailing me at email@example.com. God bless.
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Note: Senator Phillip Wheeler (R-Pikeville) represents Kentucky’s 31st State Senate District, which includes Elliott, Lawrence, Martin, Morgan, and Pike Counties. Senator Wheeler is Vice-Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor. He also serves as a member of the Senate Standing Committees on Transportation, Natural Resources and Energy, Judiciary, and State and Local government. Additionally, he is a member of the Capital Planning and Bond Oversight Statutory Committee. For a high-resolution .jpeg of Senator Wheeler, please visit: https://legislature.ky.gov/Legislators%20Full%20Res%20Images/senate131.jpg
Senator Phillip Wheeler
Kentucky State Senate, District 31
Commonwealth of Kentucky
Capitol Annex, Rm. 253 | 702 Capital Ave. | Frankfort, KY 40601 | 502-564-8100 ext. 59261