Anybody who heard my annual State of the Commonwealth address on Feb. 6 knows I had high hopes for the 2013 legislative session.
Buoyed by months of behind-the-scenes pre-session meetings with leadership and other key members of the Kentucky General Assembly, I confidently described a new atmosphere of civility and dignity in Frankfort marked by the willingness to engage in respectful dialogue and seek consensus – even amid deep philosophical differences.
I also noted a growing awareness that urgent progress was needed on numerous difficult issues.
Today, with the sound of the gavel signaling the end of the legislative session still echoing in the halls of the Capitol, the impressive list of accomplishments from the session suggests that my confidence was well-placed.
Despite this being a “short” session (30 days instead of 60), despite lingering tension from the bitter November presidential election, and despite having a divided legislature, we made tremendous progress on improving Kentucky’s competitive capacity and quality of life.
Among other things:
- We passed a bill that will keep teens from sabotaging their lives and economic stability by dropping out of school before they have enough education and training to get meaningful jobs. The Graduation Bill – which the First Lady, I and many others have been pushing for several sessions – raises the dropout age from 16 to 18, updating laws that were written in 1920, in a world that barely resembles the world we live in today.
- We made several “tweaks” to the landmark prescription painkiller legislation passed in 2012 that will strengthen the regulatory framework designed to address devastating abuse and misuse of controlled substances. This will help us continue to make sure patients with legitimate needs get their prescriptions – while we continue to target unlicensed pain clinics, reckless prescribers and criminal behavior.
- We authorized our public universities to fund 11 major construction projects with $363.3 million in so-called “agency bonds,” which are funded by the institutions themselves and won’t require any money from the General Fund. The projects – which include student housing renovations, new student centers and classrooms – will create or support more than 5,100 jobs.
- We also passed a number of bills that will help Kentucky children, including better infant health screenings, increased protections against child predators, alignment of key state policies with federal rules regarding child welfare and statutory approval of a panel I created to investigate cases of death or serious injury due to neglect or abuse. That panel is designed to see whether the system of protection broke down, and if so, to improve it.
But perhaps the most significant accomplishment was our bipartisan agreement to solve our looming pension problem and to guarantee promised benefits to current state workers and retirees, all without balancing the books on the backs of our schoolchildren. Together, we made important changes to stabilize our pension system, including:
- fully funding the annual increased estimated state obligation to the pension plan;
- creating a hybrid cash-balance plan for future state and local employees, which gives those new employees better portability of their pension benefits;
- providing for an annual cost-of-living adjustment for retirees if the General Assembly fully prefunds it in the year it is provided; and
- improving transparency and legislative oversight of the Kentucky Retirement Systems and increasing local government representation on its Board.
Not only did we solve the pension liability, we paid for it through $100 million in new funding, not by robbing money from education or other key services. No matter our political philosophies, none of us were willing to put our kids at risk of a stripped-down education.
We made several changes to our tax structure that – even though most taxpayers will see little to no change to their taxes – collectively will raise the money to fund the pension fix. Those changes are a small step in the direction of a larger tax reform effort that I will continue to push as governor.
I was disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement on other protections for vulnerable populations, and we will continue to push for these in the years ahead. These include protection from second-hand smoke in public places, a registry for those who abuse elderly people, more widespread protection for people in dating relationships, and more stringent booster seat laws that match national guidelines.
Most of the successes from this session I listed above, and other bills that passed, were the end product of a process that included rigorous debate and significant differences of opinion.
But by making sincere efforts to work through differences, and by keeping our eyes focused on the people, not politics, your elected leaders in Frankfort – Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate and in the Office of the Governor – were able to forge agreement.
This is how it should work.
Failure and lagging behind.
That used to be Kentucky’s national story when it came to schools, and so the release of any education rankings was cause for embarrassed cringing.
No longer. Thanks to decades of hard work and aggressive policy changes, Kentucky has a new reputation: National leader. And it’s a cause of celebration.
That new narrative was bolstered and solidified by the recent update of one of the education world’s most respected and comprehensive assessments of school performance and improvement.
The publication Education Week – a national, independent source that relies on comprehensive research and current realities – ranked Kentucky 10th in the nation in its annual “Quality Counts” report. The report is based on an assessment of more than 150 key education indicators, and grades states on their education policy efforts and outcomes.
The seeds of Kentucky’s improvement were sown with the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990 and later with the approval of 2009’s Senate Bill 1 – both of which demanded significant changes in teaching and assessments.
As a result, Kentucky has moved up in the Education Week rankings for the past several years. In 2010, we placed 34th in the nation. Last year we jumped to 14th. And with the 2013 report, Kentucky has broken into the top 10 with a grade of B-, bettering the national average of C+. The highest ranked state was Maryland with a B.
“Quality Counts” examines a wide range of policies and results. On one level, it’s a measure of current performance, but it’s also a measure of forward progress. Clearly, Kentucky is on the move.
Most notably, Kentucky ranked in the top 20 in four out of the six categories examined. The state was recognized for:
- connecting the K-12 education system with early learning, higher education and the world of work.
- efforts to improve teaching.
- K-12 achievement. (Kentucky was among the states showing the most rapid improvement.)
- standards, assessments and accountability.
We can, and should, be proud of these statistics. They reflect the amazing work being undertaken by teachers, administrators, staff, board members, parents, students, business and community leaders and lawmakers. It is difficult work. Yet, despite budget cuts, no money for textbooks, higher expectations, new standards and a new testing and accountability system, Kentucky teachers and students are succeeding.
However, there is one area of the “Quality Counts” report that we should heed as a warning and as a clarion call for action. That is the area of school finance.
In education funding, Kentucky failed miserably -- a low F. Kentucky spends $1,685 less per pupil than other states on average, and only about 12 percent of our students go to school in districts with funding that matches or exceeds the national average (adjusted for regional cost differences).
We have much to celebrate in this “Quality Counts” report. But imagine where our students could be if we were adequately funding our schools.
The recession and its aftermath required 13 separate budget reductions. While basic classroom funding was preserved, an increase in the number of students meant less money spent per student and reduced services to children.
Our basic funding formula for classroom funding -- Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) -- has not changed since 2008. If we continue to flat-fund our classrooms, the progress we’ve made, as noted in “Quality Counts,” will stagnate or possibly erode. Our children will be the ones who lose. We could and we should be doing more to adequately fund education in Kentucky.
It’s time we find new revenue that both fosters economic activity and also allows us to invest in our people, our workforce and our schools. It is an investment in Kentucky’s future and one that will pay off exponentially with a more competitive workforce, stronger economy and improved quality of life for the people of the Commonwealth.
Over the last five years, during the worst of the economic recession, Governor Steve Beshear had to cut $1.6 billion from the state budget. Families across the state made tough budget decisions, too. While the past few years have been difficult, those bleak economic times forced all of us to reconsider what we value most, and how to make sure that we meet the critical needs of our families.
One of the important lessons we learned in state government is that while our tax system cushioned some of the impact when the economy ran off the tracks, the tax code is not as useful or simple as Kentuckians need it to be. Parts of the tax code are antiquated. Not everyone pays a fair share, and the taxes aren’t easy to understand. Some of the tax code stunts our efforts to keep and attract jobs in a 21st century economy. Most important, the current system isn’t robust enough to guarantee we will have enough money for the services we need most, like education for our kids.
Gov. Beshear recognized that Kentucky can’t afford to wait for tax reform. Early in 2012, he appointed a broad, bipartisan commission to make sure our state doesn’t face another economic crater by failing to update its tax code.
A study of our tax system earlier this summer revealed that without significant changes, Kentucky will face a $1 billion shortfall by 2020.
As chair of Gov. Beshear’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform, I am confident that the work by our members over the last 10 months will help to align Kentucky’s tax structure with the principles of fairness, economic competitiveness and a 21st Century economy.
The Commission delivered its final report to Gov. Beshear Dec. 17. The Governor will study the report before he meets with legislators to build a consensus on moving forward on changes to our tax code.
Our suggested changes to the state tax code would generate roughly $659 million in new revenue annually once fully implemented. These proposals will modernize our tax structure, making it fairer for families and businesses. The changes would position Kentucky to create more jobs, further grow our economy and fund many of the services the Commission heard were needed all across the Commonwealth.
During our review of the tax code, the Commission heard advice from our consultant team, and met with citizens at six town halls across the Commonwealth, learning about how our tax system intersects with Kentuckians on an everyday basis.
What we heard loudly and clearly was if Kentucky is going to continue to invest in education, economic development and health services, we must have an adequate tax code that meets the needs of our citizens -- businesses and individuals alike.
We have no choice.
During the recession, the Governor managed budget cuts and protected key services, like education, health care and public safety, as best we could. But we can’t allow the persistent and painful budget reductions of a recession to become regular practice, because those needed services will eventually wither.
We can’t afford to continue providing just enough money to cover the barest essentials for classrooms, or just enough money to keep job training programs open. In a 21st century economy, “just enough” isn’t good enough. In order to compete, Kentucky has to build a solid foundation for businesses, families and communities to thrive, and invigorating our out-of-date tax code is a necessary step.
The time to act is now. We purposefully waited for our state’s economy to show signs of stability before moving on tax reform, because we needed to get past the worst of the recession before making significant structural change. Recently, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the Commonwealth had the second highest percentage of job growth in the nation from September 2011 to September 2012. Our economy is now in a prime position not only to handle the proposed tax reforms, but also to thrive because of the positive changes in fairness, simplicity, and business support these reforms will bring.
This makes the recommendations of the Tax Commission even more critical.
Improving Kentucky’s tax structure is yet another way to ensure that government works for the people, not against them.
We hope you will continue to stay engaged as the Governor and the General Assembly discuss our path forward toward real tax reform. You can find a copy of our final report on my website, ltgovernor.ky.gov.
Last Monday I was on a panel at the Bluegrass Policy Forum on Substance Abuse in Prestonsburg, which was presented by two groups working to combat Kentucky’s illegal drug habit – the Operation UNITE Foundation and the Recovery Kentucky program.
More than 400 people attended to hear a discussion of new policies and programs geared toward ending the illegal use of prescription drugs.
It was incredible to hear so many people talk so passionately about this issue, and it was encouraging to hear of progress being made.
Given events like this – plus the mind-numbing prescription statistics and the harrowing number of fatalities related to drug overdoses that plague our state -- I’m stunned that there are still a few people who believe that Kentucky doesn’t have a problem with prescription pain-killers, and that a better strategy for us is to return to the prescription playground of pre-House Bill 1 days.
Fortunately, the facts are aligned solidly against this misguided but vocal minority, as are most Kentuckians -- including beleaguered patients, parents and children of overdose statistics, police and prosecutors, the vast majority of the medical community, elected officials of all political persuasions, substance abuse counselors and employers. These Kentuckians -- who have first-hand experience of the horror of addiction – will prove to be on the right side of history.
And fortunately Kentucky is making measurable and encouraging progress in kicking its pain-killer addiction.
HB 1 has been a significant tool in that effort since it passed the Kentucky General Assembly this past spring, and it will continue to be effective in the years ahead. But it’s just one of many tools we’ve employed over the last few years, including expanded substance abuse programs, interstate task forces, law enforcement action, training programs for prescribers and prescription oversight.
We put out a press release a couple of weeks ago touting some progress made over the last year, partly because of House Bill 1. For example:
- Since July 20, medical providers are requesting about 20,000 KASPER reports a day, giving them access to a patient’s prescription history. A year ago, it was 3,000 a day.
- The use of some popular pain-killers that are often misused is down.
- Since HB 1 was implemented, some 10 pain management clinics have shut down rather than abide by new regulations that require medical oversight.
- And the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, armed with new tools, is being more aggressive about cracking down on reckless physicians. It has taken disciplinary action against 33 practitioners just in the last six months, compared to 18 in all of 2011.
Recently, we’ve heard from critics of HB 1 who are spending time and large amounts of money to parse words about whether some of the credit for our progress belongs to HB 1 or another one of our initiatives. But they’re missing the proverbial forest for the trees. In fact, by arguing about the improvements, they’re acknowledging them.
These few critics aside, the bottom line is that the medical community as a whole recognized that the old system wasn’t working, and they are working hand in hand with us to change the over-medicated culture of Kentucky.
The regulations of HB1 were primarily written by medical professionals, and in the months ahead we will rely on them to help tweak the law to improve it. And yes, as with all major reform efforts, of course ongoing tweaks are necessary.
But under no circumstance will we abandon Kentucky patients to the mercy of profit-hungry prescribers who continue to demand sole authority and autonomy and who continue to resist the oversight of their colleagues and those in law enforcement.
It was encouraging at the forum to hear other top elected officials make a similar vow of support for HB 1, including Democrat House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers – both of whom fought hard for its passage and both of whom come from districts suffering from addiction to prescription pain-killers.
Like me, they believe we must continue to put the people of Kentucky first.
Starr Roberts is just the kind of smart young woman you’d want as a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker. She’s a senior at St. Catharine College, completing degrees in business and early childhood studies, and was elected student body president. But she almost didn’t go to college at all.
As a student at Louisville’s Valley High School, she didn’t know how to apply for admission or get financial aid for college. Plus, she had never heard of the small college near Springfield.
But in 2009, her senior year, the City of Louisville partnered with the local business community and Jefferson County Public Schools to create a program called Close the Deal, designed to guide soon-to-be-graduates through the process of pursuing higher education. Through Close the Deal, Starr found the support and resources she needed to begin an unexpected new journey to enroll in college.
"Time was getting closer and closer. Close the Deal helped me make the best decision, and I'm extremely blessed that St. Catharine College was able to be a part of this program,” said Starr. “I've accomplished a lot of my goals throughout the four years I've been at St. Catharine College."
I visited St. Catharine College last year and talked with Starr about the extraordinary impact that Close the Deal made in her life. That’s when I knew it was time to take this program statewide.
We launched Close the Deal when I was mayor of Louisville, because we had so many talented students who would earn high school diplomas but had no idea what to do next. They didn’t know how to pursue higher education, whether through community college for a certificate or a two-year associate degree, or a traditional four-year university. These students had real potential, but needed some guidance in how to get to the next step of their educational careers.
Since 2009, Close the Deal has helped approximately 5,400 students in Louisville find a path to higher education they didn’t realize was in reach. Many of these young adults became the first in their family to attend college – like me.
It’s time for more high school students throughout the Commonwealth to have the same opportunity.
Partnering with Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Terry Holliday, we are preparing to launch a state pilot Close the Deal program at Bullitt Central, Campbell County and Lawrence County High Schools. We are hopeful that additional counties will join the program next year.
Last month, we gathered all the partners in these counties – local elected officials, the education leadership and local chamber of commerce – to set the stage for the three kickoff events: Oct. 3 at Campbell County, Oct. 9 at Bullitt Central, and Oct. 22 at Lawrence County.
The Kentucky Department of Education has also added Close the Deal to the department’s Operation Preparation initiative. Operation Preparation combines the efforts of the Department of Education and the Department of Workforce Development to help students plan life after high school.
Our goal is to create a strong college culture in schools with lower college-going rates; to support high school counselors to more effectively assist students in college application and enrollment; and to engage business and postsecondary communities to assist students in establishing and meeting postsecondary goals.
Close the Deal goes hand-in-hand with the aggressive educational goals of Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear, who have worked tirelessly over the last five years to increase the level of education attainment for students across the Commonwealth.
Those efforts are paying off. Kentucky has improved faster than any state in the nation on key higher education performance measures, according to a report issued last fall by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.
The report ranked Kentucky ranked first among all states on three metrics, including the rate of improvement in the percent of working-age adults with college degrees, six-year graduation rates at four-year colleges and universities, and the number of undergraduate credentials awarded relative to the population with no college degree.
Education is a high priority for Gov. Beshear and our administration. We are confident that Close the Deal will be a tool to prepare Kentucky’s future workforce to fill high-playing, knowledge-based jobs.
We are excited about the possibilities and success Close the Deal will bring to high school seniors across Kentucky, just as it did in Louisville for Starr Roberts.
For more information about Close the Deal in Kentucky, visit my website at ltgovernor.ky.gov.
We need to remember the big picture on prescription drug abuse. Nearly 1,000 Kentuckians die every year from drug overdoses. For the most part, they’re not overdosing on over-the-counter medications. They’re dying from drugs that were either prescribed by a medical professional or were illegally obtained.
In 2011, our prescription monitoring program, KASPER, reported that 219 million doses of hydrocodone were dispensed in Kentucky. That’s nearly 51 doses for every man, woman and child in the state. Does any medical professional out there think that’s a number that seems appropriate for the medical needs of a state our size?
There’s no question that prescription drug abuse is killing our people, damaging our families, and crippling our workplaces. So when a fraction of practitioners complain that new regulations to drive out drug abusers are “too burdensome” on the medical community, I am confounded not only by their immediate rejection of a simple, commonsense step to better track these drugs, but also by their utter lack of a reasonable alternative to curb prescription diversion and abuse.
Some of the complaints are born out of plain confusion or misinformation. Here’s the truth:
- FACT: Since HB1 implementation on July 20, medical providers are requesting about 20,000 KASPER reports a day. A year ago, it was 3,000 a day. Clearly, a huge number of our physicians are using KASPER, despite the concerns of a few who say it is too cumbersome.
- FACT: Since HB1 implementation, 93 percent of KASPER requests are processed in less than five seconds.
- FACT: Even if KASPER is down, or can’t provide immediately verified information, that doesn’t mean the doctor can’t prescribe a controlled substance. The regulations were built with that consideration – and simply state that a provider must “query”, or ask, for the report. If the response is delayed for whatever reason, providers can still write any needed prescription right away.
- FACT: Each professional board has instituted what amounts to a kind of grace period for providers in the first several weeks of HB1’s implementation. That means through Oct. 1, the boards will not take disciplinary action against providers for most errors under the new regulations, in order for the medical community to get used to the new guidelines. It’s a smart way to introduce the practices without the worry of reprisal for honest mistakes.
We simply cannot continue the same practices in medicine or law enforcement and expect the number of overdoses to drop on their own, or for doctor shoppers to have an unprompted change of heart. Addiction doesn’t work that way.
I know the vast majority of our medical professionals provide thoughtful care for Kentuckians, and that they recognize that prescription drug abuse is a raging terror in our hometowns. Most practitioners are following the law, and I expect we will see tangible results soon.
The federal mandate is clear: Kentucky either creates its own online marketplace to help its citizens find and qualify for health insurance … or it moves aside and the federal government takes over.
These online marketplaces, known as exchanges, are required by the federal Affordable Care Act, which was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s a fact. The only question is: who runs it? Us, or Washington, D.C.?
Equally clear is the best answer to that choice: Kentucky – not the federal government -- should manage its program.
So last week I signed an executive order establishing what’s called the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange.
Beginning in 2014, the exchange required by federal law will provide one-stop shopping for Kentuckians to enroll in qualified health care plans or through federal and state programs like Medicaid and KCHIP. It also will be the place where employers can enroll their workers in health plans, small businesses can qualify for tax credits and individuals can qualify for tax credits and subsidies to help pay their premiums.
My executive order also established an 11-member Exchange Advisory Board whose members will be announced by mid-August. And it sets in motion six upcoming forums around the state beginning July 25 with insurers, providers, agents, consumers, employers and advocates to educate the public on insurance reforms and to solicit input on the development of a Kentucky exchange.
My decision followed the recommendations of multiple stakeholders – including business groups, hospitals, insurers and health care advocates … groups with as varied points of view as the Kentucky Hospital Association, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and Kentucky Voices for Health.
They have argued loudly and clearly that they don’t want the federal government running this program for Kentucky.
Yet when it came time to find office space to house the program, a legislative committee – voting strictly along partisan lines – tried to block the creation of the exchange by rejecting that proposal. I overrode their action and authorized the Secretary of Finance to enter into the lease.
When are we going to get partisan politics out of policy discussions?
The Affordable Care Act is neither perfect nor the end-all solution to health care reform. But it’s a start, and it’s the law. Regardless of your political affiliation, Kentucky and all other states are under federal order to create benefits exchanges for access to coverage for all citizens.
And with Kentucky’s high rates of cancer and other chronic diseases, this exchange will help our citizens find affordable, quality health care that can help them get on a path to wellness.
We can either hide and let the federal government run this program, or we can step up.
I am determined that Kentucky will not fall behind in the implementation of our state health care exchange.
People who care about Kentuckians know they need help. And that’s what we’re going to give them.
We’ve held off modernizing Kentucky’s tax code for several years now, not wanting to jeopardize the beginning stages of our recovery from the global economic recession.
With the recovery taking firm hold, however, the time has arrived to move our tax system into the 21st Century.
Led by Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, the 23 members of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform have been meeting for several months to familiarize themselves with the strengths and weaknesses of our tax system, to look at other states and to examine the dozen studies and evaluations of Kentucky taxes that have been performed since 1982.
Now it’s your turn to weigh in.
Beginning next Tuesday, the commission will be holding meetings around the state to hear what Kentuckians think about our tax code – where it needs to be changed, where it must be improved.
Meetings will be in Paducah, Bowling Green, Louisville, Highland Heights (on Northern Kentucky University’s campus), Prestonsburg and Lexington. For locations and times, look on the web site ltgovernor.ky.gov/taxreform under “public meeting schedule”.
If you can’t make it to a meeting, you can still voice your opinion by clicking on “public comments”.
Whether you’re a teacher, a small-business owner, a college student, a steelworker or a part-time short-order cook, we want to hear from you. We need to hear from you.
I could easily have put the task of modernizing Kentucky’s tax code solely in the hands of economic experts. But this isn’t an academic, esoteric exercise set up to posit theoretical arguments about ideal tax structures.
It’s an exercise that recognizes that the power of taxation is a living, breathing, mechanism with tangible impact on people’s lives – both those who are taxed, and those who use services funded by those taxes.
If you earn an income or own property, this will have an impact on you.
Likewise, if you drive on roads … live in an area patrolled by state police … have a child or relative in the K-12 school system, a community college or a public university … want the air you breathe to be clean … use electricity … access health care through Medicaid … or use any other of hundreds of government services, then you have a vested interest in how our taxes work.
By listening to our citizens, we hope to understand not only their perceptions of how our tax revenue is raised but also whether they think those taxes are adequate to meet the needs of a state facing dynamic shifts in education, workforce training, early childhood development, aging and health care.
Kentucky’s tax system served us well during the recession. But to prepare ourselves to compete in the future, we must – in a thoughtful and nonpartisan way – re-align our system with the principles of fairness and a 21st Century economy.
This commission has no pre-set notion of what changes need to be made. It instead has five overarching goals:
- A tax burden that is fair for different families and businesses.
- A structure that is competitive, ensuring that Kentucky continues to attract and retain jobs and investment.
- A system that is easy to understand and comply with.
- A system that evolves with the economy.
- And a system that provides adequate revenue for services that improve Kentuckians’ quality of life.
The best tax structure strikes a balance between tax burden and return. By attending one of these meetings or weighing in on-line, you can help us find that balance.
We have done much in the last 4½ years to rein in government and cut spending. But we’ve also fought hard to preserve critical services.
That’s because we realize that Kentuckians are not against taxes. They are against unnecessary taxes.
Nor are Kentuckians against spending. They are against wasteful spending.
And they’re not against government. They’re against poorly run government.
Improving Kentucky’s tax structure is yet another way to ensure that government works for the people, not against them.
A close look at this spring’s lawmaking sessions in Kentucky reveals vital legislation that will help our beleaguered families and address systemic problems affecting our quality of life.
The General Assembly and my office worked together to make significant progress on many issues, including:
- Wide-ranging and bold legislation to help us target the illegal use of prescription drugs by cracking down on “pill mills,” targeting unscrupulous or reckless doctors and allowing us to share information with other states. Creating more aggressive tools to address this national crisis was one of the highest priorities of the session.
- Preserving unemployment insurance benefits for our out-of-work families and protecting a $600 million federal tax credit for businesses. Like most other states, Kentucky had to borrow during the recession’s aftermath to keep our unemployment insurance program viable, and this business-created plan helps make the program sound again.
- Authorizing Kentucky's first tax amnesty program in 10 years, which will result in overdue taxes being paid, and bringing new taxpayers onto the tax rolls.
- Strengthening incentive programs that help existing Kentucky companies expand facilities and create jobs, specifically in automotive and parts manufacturing and in heavy industry.
- Establishing a task force to study how juvenile offenders are punished, including the treatment of so-called status offenses like truancy and running away.
- Establishing a task force to review public pensions in the Commonwealth.
In addition, legislators largely kept intact my proposed two-year budget. Its 8.4 percent cut in spending for many state agencies represents the 11th time we’ve reduced spending in the last 4½ years. The enacted budget reduces our reliance on one-time funds and has the smallest amount of new debt since 1996.
Despite tight revenues, we have maintained current-level funding for K-12 instruction, preserved Medicaid, which provides health care for one in five Kentuckians, and protected public safety programs.
Furthermore, the budget includes my proposals to:
- Reduce crushing caseloads for social workers by hiring more staff in the area of child abuse and neglect.
- Fund for the first time a program that provides colon cancer screenings to 4,000 uninsured Kentuckians.
- Invest in aggressive drug abuse treatment by funding for the first time out-patient substance-abuse treatment in the Medicaid program for both adults and adolescents.
- Fund an elder abuse registry that will allow our families to protect senior citizens from unfit caretakers.
- Expand the One-Stop Business Portal to streamline how our businesses interact with state government.
- Fund the design, planning and purchase of land for the Breathitt Veterinary Center in Hopkinsville, considered the agriculture community’s highest priority.
- Fund necessary road and bridge infrastructure throughout the Commonwealth, including the construction of the Ohio River Bridges Project in Louisville.
- And continue to invest in critical capital needs, including elementary and secondary schools, a fourth state veterans’ nursing home, and maintenance for the state’s aging infrastructure.
These investments in the long-term needs of our people help chip away at fundamental weaknesses that have hurt us for generations.
As we now look to the future, I will continue to work on some fundamental issues that were not successful this spring. I think the legislature missed golden opportunities to strengthen our workforce by raising the legal drop-out age and expanding preschool programs for our youngest students. In addition, I continue to believe that creating an independent review panel to examine child fatalities and near-fatalities where child abuse and/or neglect are alleged is important.
And like most Kentuckians, I am disappointed that voters will not, in this cycle, be given the opportunity to decide the future of expanding gaming once and for all.
Our focus now must be on improving the quality of life for our citizens and finding ways to improve their opportunities for jobs. Toward that end, Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson and I will moving forward in the months ahead on a broad study of Kentucky’s tax structure to better align it with the principles of fairness, economic competitiveness and a 21st Century economy. We need to create a tax system that enables state government to meet the needs of our people and our businesses.
A lot of hard work and many difficult decisions lie ahead as we implement a very sparse budget and try to maintain services to our citizens over the next two years.
But even in a very challenging session, we took some significant steps forward.
Until you’ve stood amid a miles-long trail of wreck and ruin where homes and businesses used to stand, and until you’ve talked to people still shell-shocked from having lived through 160-mph winds, it’s difficult to grasp the damage – physical and emotional – that a tornado does.
The devastation is immense. And it’s intense.
On Wednesday we made our second tour of communities devastated by the tornadoes that ripped through Kentucky last Friday.
All around, we saw a buzz of activity: Neighbors cleaning up. National Guard on patrol. Emergency officials assessing damage. Families sorting through wreckage. And volunteers at well-organized temporary shelters distributing hot meals, clothing and water.
And most of all, we saw families and small-business owners struggling to find and put back together the pieces of their lives.
Their stories spoke of survival, of relief, of blessings realized, of shock and -- most of all – of grim resolve.
In Laurel County, a father described being thrown hundreds of feet. He lifted his shirt to show cracked ribs and massive bruises, and he expressed thanks that his kids’ injuries were minor.
“We may have lost everything, but we’re still alive,” he said.
In Lawrence County, another father recounted how he had crammed his children and wife into a bathtub, then sprawled over it himself to create a layer of protection.
When their roof lifted off and the wind started to tug, his son grabbed his sister’s leg, and the father thrust his arm around his son’s waist.
In West Liberty in Morgan County, a man with tears in his eyes stood near the ruins of the United Methodist Church. Plans for a 100th anniversary celebration are long forgotten, he said, blown away with the church’s beautiful stained glass windows.
The church is the people, not a building, the man agreed. But he planned to look for some of the brightly colored shards anyway, to see if he could put a window back together.
Kentuckians have endured a lot over the last few years: The impact of a global economic recession. Floods. A crippling ice storm. Wind storms. Paralyzing snow. And on Friday – two days after a dozen tornadoes roared through the Bluegrass – another series of tornadoes as ferocious and damaging as any in our history.
Communities in 47 counties – more than a third of the state – suffered damage, some from high winds and hail, but at least 19 directly from tornadoes that left some towns looking like war zones.
At least 23 people were killed, from a 14-year-old 9th grade band member to a husband and wife 87 and 90 years old.
More than 300 people were injured.
The total number of buildings damaged beyond repair – or simply blown away – remains uncounted. But they include homes, apartment complexes, a fire house, schools, a county courthouse, churches, banks and businesses of all kinds.
Like many around the state, we grieve for the victims. Their lives ended tragically, and we mourn with their families.
But amid the pain and suffering, amid the many tragic losses, we’ve seen much that leaves us with hope:
The courage of emergency workers who rushed to render aid, some even before the danger had passed.
The concern and energy of volunteers who have poured in to save possessions, to clean up, to provide shelter and the necessities of life.
The tireless efforts of overwhelmed local officials.
The thousands of people who have generously donated food, clothing and money (and more money is desperately needed).
We want to assure our Kentucky families that we are taking advantage of every local, state and federal resource for storm relief, and that our commitment – and the commitment of the Offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor – will not waver.
Among the many steps we’ve taken: We deployed a force of nearly 400 Kentucky Guard troops … we spoke with President Obama personally to secure quick approval of federal assistance … and we implemented executive orders to protect consumers from price gouging and to allow residents in affected areas to get emergency refills of prescriptions.
And numerous state agencies – representing law enforcement, emergency management, health care, transportation and other functions – remain on the ground.
As Governor and Lieutenant Governor, we are in agony for our families. But we’re also in awe.
Kentuckians are known for their resilience, for their ability to stand strong no matter what the challenge, to recover no matter what the hurt.
That spirit is on display around this state, in communities from west to east.
And it’s embodied in another couple we met in West Liberty this week, a couple that paused from clearing debris out of their antique shop to voice hope and defiance.
“It’s been tough on us, but we’ll be back,” the man said. “We’ll open up again, and we want you to come to our grand opening.”