SENATOR PHILLIP WHEELER: GENERAL ASSEMBLY KICKS OFF INTERIM PERIOD
The Commonwealth of Kentucky celebrated its 229th birthday on Tuesday, June 1. It also marked the first official day of the 2021 Interim of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The interim serves as a period for lawmakers to receive updates on implemented legislation, stay informed on various issues facing the Commonwealth, and prepare for the 2022 Regular Session, which begins next January. Here in Kentucky, we are considered a “part-time legislature,” but work for my colleagues and me is year-round.
COVID-19, its various impacts, and state and legislative responses to it over the last year and a half continue to demand state government’s attention. Of most importance, outside of direct health impact to our citizens, is how students and Kentucky’s youth have been affected during the pandemic.
A meeting of the Interim Joint Committee (IJC) on Education included visits from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and local school districts. Their presentation focused on student participation, engagement, and intervention concerns during the pandemic. Unfortunately, KDE surveys indicated that over 11 percent of students across K-12 education were not participating in online classes. Education officials commended school personnel’s efforts to mitigate challenges. Teachers worked hard to connect with families when and where they were available if that meant connecting late at night or on weekends. One teacher in Shelby County even purchased groceries for a family in need.
A couple of things are clear from the testimonies given at this meeting. 1. In-person face-to-face learning is most beneficial for students, and 2. Teachers, parents, school staff, and educational leaders stepped up in a big way to make the most out of a bad situation. Information on learning gaps is expected to become available around September and October as assessment scores are reported.
The IJC on Transportation, on which I serve as a member, welcomed Cabinet Secretary Jim Gray and other representatives from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) for an update on the implementation of REAL ID, expansion of regional KYTC offices, and transportation-related Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. If you recall, I provided information related to REAL ID and regional offices in a recent column published in your local paper. I encourage you to review that column for details.
About ten counties continue to transition to KYTC regional offices each month, and all 120 counties’ licensing responsibilities will make the transition by June 30, 2022. Record keeping responsibilities will be maintained at our local circuit court clerk offices. KYTC is trying to make the transition as smooth and convenient as possible by offering the renewal of licensing (with no substantive changes like name or address) online and bringing mobile/pop-up licensing offices directly into rural counties. This was a point of concern for myself and others. KYTC reported that ten regional offices would receive a mobile unit responsible for deploying to surrounding counties throughout the year in cooperation with local elected officials. Our committee expressed encouragement that KYTC will keep mail-in renewal of license in place as an option for those who have trouble traveling to a regional office. The cabinet seemed receptive to the request.
The IJC on Appropriations and Revenue received an update on broadband deployment. The General Assembly allocated $300 million to expand broadband access to unserved and underserved communities and secure economic development opportunities for commercial and industrial customers. It was reported that Stage 1 of the project is expected to be released this month or next.
Additionally, the A&R Committee heard from Sunrise Children’s Services. This organization has cared for children since 1869. It has contracted with the state since the 1970s, helping care for thousands of Kentucky kids in need. It is a faith-based organization that the state had long respected the religious convictions of, until recently when the contract language was changed unexpectedly. The language change is not compatible with the language that has allowed Sunrise to partner with the state for a half-century, spanning multiple administrations, both Republican and Democratic. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services is attempting to require Sunrise to comply with a federal rule that was repealed in 2019. Five of the state’s constitutional officers have sided with Sunrise. They call for the administration to renew the contract and respect Sunrise’s First Amendment rights and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Failure to continue the precedent of partnership puts children at risk unnecessarily. In the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 alone, Sunrise has served 1,636 Kentucky children and has assisted in finding loving homes for 588 of them.
A meeting of the IJC on Judiciary, on which I also serve as a member, including a visit from Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton, who provided an update on the Judicial Branch. Courts are utilizing legislative appropriations to upgrade technology to benefit Kentuckians. As an attorney, I am excited to see how these upgrades will help our people. Finally, I attended a meeting of the IJC on Natural Resources and Energy that focused on concerns related to the cybersecurity of electrical utility infrastructure. The recent cyber-attack on one of our pipelines that disrupted supply in some areas has brought much-needed attention to this topic.
You can find archived footage of these meetings at ket.org/legislature/archives. I will continue to keep you updated on topics and policy focuses during the interim. If you have any questions or comments about these issues or any other public policy issues, please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me at Paul.Hornback@LRC.ky.gov. You can also review the Legislature’s work online at www.legislature.ky.gov.
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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 serves as a member of the Interim Joint Committees on Economic Development and Workforce Investment; Judiciary; Local Government; Natural Resources and Energy; State Government; Tourism, Small Business, and Information Technology; and Transportation. He is also a member of the 2020-2022 Budget Preparation and Submission Committee, the Capital Planning and Bond Oversight Committee, and the County Clerk Office Modernization Task Force. For a high-resolution .jpeg of Senator Wheeler, please visit:https://legislature.ky.gov/Legislators%20Full%20Res%20Images/senate131.jpg