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GUEST COLUMN: Budget bill passes the House

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By The Staff

The House budget bill—which we passed last week—is now before the Senate where many of its specifics will surely be modified or replaced with Senate changes. If those modifications reach the House within the next week or so, there is a good chance that the two chambers will be able to go into conference committee and negotiate a final bill before the veto recess begins in late March or early April. Passing the bill ahead of the veto recess would give the General Assembly a chance to override any possible gubernatorial vetoes—something we couldn’t do if we wait to pass a budget in the session’s final two scheduled days after the recess.

All in all, lawmakers are hopeful we can get a budget passed before the recess and retain our override power for any line-item or other budget vetoes that might come along.

Protecting health insurance for retired teachers is the crux of a bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday when it passed the House budget committee. By increasing amounts paid into the state retired teachers health insurance fund by active teachers, retired teachers under age 65, school districts, universities and the state, HB 540 would shore up the ailing fund over the next six years. The bill is also expected to cut the plan’s “unfunded liability” from $6.2 billion to $3.4 billion. HB 540 now goes to the full House for consideration.

For several years now, the state has borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from the teachers’ pension system to cover the cost of retired teacher health insurance, but another bill, HB 531, would help the state repay that money with over $800 million in authorized bonds while saving the state millions of dollars in interest rate costs.  That measure passed the House 97-0 on Tuesday and now goes to the Senate.

Health insurance is not just a concern of our retired teachers. It concerns any Kentuckian who is dealing with diseases or disorders—like autism spectrum disorders--that require specialized treatment not always covered by insurance. Some studies show that as many as one in 110 young people in Kentucky struggle with an autism behavioral disorder that is costly to treat but may not be adequately covered by insurers.

To help these patients and their families, the House voted 97-0 on Tuesday to pass HB 159 which would require health insurers to cover the cost of autism diagnosis and treatment for children age 1-21 at various levels. Supporters of the bill say it will allow many children to receive innovative new, yet admittedly expensive, treatments before their age 7 when the brain is in peak development. HB 159 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

Society, like individuals, faces some ills that only criminal penalties can address. That is especially true when it comes to domestic violence. That is why the Senate this week passed a version of HB 1—the get-tough crime bill commonly known as “Amanda’s Bill”—that would allow judges to require violators of domestic violence orders (or DVOs) to wear GPS devices that would track their movements. Violators would also pay the cost of the monitoring if financially able. The bill now returns to the House for agreement with the Senate’s changes.

To show that the criminal justice system is designed to protect everyone—including those housed in our state prisons and county jails—the House Judiciary Committee this week approved Senate Bill 17 which would make it a felony for prison guards, jail employees or any correctional worker to have sex with an inmate. If convicted, the correctional worker could face up to five years in prison instead of the current misdemeanor penalty of no more than a year in jail. SB 17 now goes to the full House for consideration.

Improved screening for colon cancer in Kentucky received broad support in the House on Tuesday when it passed HB 72 by a vote of 97-0. The bill would provide $600,000 in state funds over the next biennium to cover colonoscopies for the uninsured while allowing the state to develop an income-based payment system to cover its costs. HB 72 now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Please continue to  stay informed of action in the House budget committee and all other legislative action during the 2010 Regular Session by checking our website, www.lrc.ky.gov, or by calling the LRC toll-free Bill Status Line at 866-840-2835. To find out when a committee meeting is scheduled, check the website or call the LRC toll-free Meeting Information Line at 800-633-9650.

If you would like to share your comments or concerns with me or another legislator about a particular bill under consideration this session, please feel free to call the Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181.