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Blueprints and Budgets for the Bluegrass

Amid a flurry of last minute votes, Kentucky lawmakers ended their legislative session for the year shortly before midnight on Friday, April 15th after approving and sending to Governor Matt Bevin several major bills along with the much negotiated biennial budget.

After working their way through many tough issues related to the state’s budget, including the 164 page “differences document” whereby lawmakers go through the differences in the two versions of the budget one item at a time, the state budget conferees reached an agreement that included funding for civil legal aid. Budget conferees finished negotiations at 2:40 a.m. on Thursday, April 14th and the bill passed both houses on Friday. The budget includes:

  • A 4.5% cut in higher education in each of the two years
  • University performance-based funding criteria
  • Increased funding for the state pensions, more than $1 billion, and established a “Permanent Fund” for future pension payments
  • Full restoration of K-12 funding for the educational support services (Learning and Results Services)
  • A new Work Ready program for two-year degree tuition assistance, capped at $25 million
  • The creation of a $100 million workforce development bond pool with specific criteria, allowing one project per congressional district
  • Enhanced coal severance funding criteria for coal counties
  • $60 million in bond funding for the Lexington Convention Center
  • Agreement on a two-year Road Fund
  • An increase in the state’s Rainy Day Fund
  • No new tax increases

We are now in the “veto period” where Governor Bevin has the ability to line-item veto any provisions in the budget. Because of the timing of the passage of the budget, the Governor has final word on the budget as well as last minute bills passed by the General Assembly. The legislature will not have the ability to consider any veto overrides.

While the budget was the biggest issue to be tackled this session, the bill most likely to have the greatest impact on our clients is House Bill 40 dealing with the expungement of felony records. This bill was already signed into law by Governor Bevin.

The legislation is giving some nonviolent felons a second chance by letting them seek to have their criminal records erased. "We are a country of second chances," Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, said in supporting the bill. The bill would apply to people convicted of some Class D felony offenses — crimes whose maximum sentence is five years in prison — allowing them to ask a court to clear their records. The measure would not apply to felons convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses.

Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said it was a constituent who swayed him to support the legislation. The constituent, as a young man, committed a felony two decades ago and had not committed another crime since. But because of his felony record, he had trouble getting a job. Westerfield, who helped shepherd the bill through the Senate, said there are tens of thousands Kentuckians in similar situations. "Men and women who did something stupid ... have shown that they've learned not to do it anymore," he said. "They ought to have a chance at a second shot. That's what this bill does."

Under the bill, eligible offenders could go to court to ask a judge to vacate and expunge their criminal records. Prosecutors could respond to the request on behalf of crime victims. The judge would then decide whether to expunge the record. Westerfield said the decision would not be automatic.

The final version also narrowed the number of felony offenses covered by the expungement proposal. Out of about 400 Class D felonies, 61 would be covered by the bill, Westerfield said. But those 61 offenses cover about 70 percent of all Kentuckians convicted of Class D felonies, he said. People convicted of multiple felonies would be ineligible to have their records expunged, unless all their offenses were committed in a single occurrence and all the offenses are covered by the bill.

Other bills of interest to our community that are currently being reviewed by the Governor include the following:

House Bill 626, which will create the "Work Ready" scholarship program for students with at least a 2.5 grade point average who are pursuing an associate's degree at community colleges or universities. The state budget includes $25.3 million to fund the program for its first two years. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, compared Work Ready to the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, the landmark law that overhauled the state's public schools and improved per-student funding. "This is something that's still going to be around long after all of us are gone," Stumbo told reporters.

The House also sent Bevin a bill that would change the state's driver's licenses so residents can meet federal requirements for boarding domestic flights. The measure updates driver's license procedures to comply with the federal Real ID Act. To get a new license, beginning in 2019, Kentucky drivers will have to pay $48 and bring in a copy of their birth certificate and two proofs of residency. The new driver's licenses would be optional, but anyone who does not have a new license by Oct. 1, 2020, would have to use a U.S. passport, a passport card or some other acceptable form of identification to board a domestic flight. It costs $135 to get a passport and takes about six weeks to get one. A passport card costs $55 and cannot be used for international travel.

The House passed a second revenue bill to help pay for state operations, this time without the assortment of tax breaks that prompted Bevin to veto the previous revenue bill. To create a vehicle for the new measure, House leaders gutted House Bill 80, which had been a transparency bill that would have expanded the Kentucky Open Records Act to cover private companies that run public utilities.

The House gave final passage to the state's road plans that identify several billion dollars in highway and bridge work over the next six years that will be addressed based on how it's prioritized. It also gave final approval to House Bill 4, which increases penalties for trafficking or possessing synthetic drugs.

The Senate budget panel gutted House Bill 449, which previously dealt with waste-to-energy facilities, and created a bill aimed at bringing more transparency to area development districts and the pension programs of retired state workers, teachers and legislators. Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer dubbed it the "Super Transparency Bill." He called it "a first step" to shed light on how the state programs and agencies are managed. The Senate later approved it on 37-0 vote and sent it to the House, which did not consider it.

Stivers also said the Senate did not confirm 20 to 25 appointments made by former Gov. Steve Beshear.