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Education, government accountability dominant theme in General Assembly last week

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By The Staff

When it comes to education, few days in recent years could rival last Thursday, when the state learned in the morning that it is a “Race to the Top” finalist and the Kentucky House voted overwhelmingly that afternoon to begin raising the high school drop-out age from 16 to 18.

“Race to the Top” is a $4 billion program that Congress authorized last year to reward those states showing a true commitment to education reform. Kentucky and 39 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., submitted applications in January, but we and 15 others were the only ones to make it to the next level.

There are hopes that our schools could receive as much as $200 million, but we will not know what we might receive, if anything, until next month. Fortunately, a second round of funding for the states is also planned later this year.

Kentucky gets high marks for taking the lead in establishing new assessment standards and, just a few weeks ago, giving education officials another tool to help chronically low-performing schools.

I believe raising the drop-out age will help our case as well.  Under the House plan, this would be phased in beginning in 2013, and would bring Kentucky in line with more than two dozen other states if it becomes law.  It also has the backing of First Lady Jane Beshear, who hosted a summit on the issue last fall.

Those of us who supported this noted that the drop-out age was set in 1920, when graduating high school was not as critical to getting a job as it is today.  Drop-outs also earn nearly $7,000 less annually than those who receive a diploma.

If education was the dominant theme last week, increasing government accountability was another.

To begin with, we are trying to get a clearer picture of the true size of the state government workforce.  While we generally know how many career employees and political appointees there are, it is unclear how many work for the state as private contractors.

The bill we passed last week includes an important measure to require much more stringent billing standards so that auditors can make sure that the state gets what it pays for.  Too many receipts now are barely itemized, making it impossible to verify what was exactly done.

In the other legislation sent to the Senate last week, we would greatly increase the number of contracts that the legislature reviews on a regular basis.  We have a permanent committee dedicated to this function, but there are literally thousands of contracts – amounting to billions of dollars – that are not part of this process.  As the branch that writes the budget, we feel we should be able to access much of that information as well.

There were two other bills making it through the House last week that have received a considerable amount of attention.  In the first, we would require more appropriate punishment for teenagers caught using cell phones to transmit sexually inappropriate images of themselves or others.  These crimes often are not suited for the strong child pornography laws they now fall under.

In the second, we would create a pilot program to open a handful of family courts.  As we look for ways to reduce the number of children who die because of abuse or neglect, this change should make it easier for extended family to be more involved if a child is about to be removed from a home.

This week, the House will vote on our version of the budget.  On Thursday, we took the first step in that direction by voting on legislation that will help us avoid steep cuts in education and human services.

Overall, our plan includes some tough choices, but it provides a realistic way to get through the $1.2 billion deficit state government faces during the next two years.  We will incorporate a number of efficiencies throughout state government and Medicaid, limit the number of political appointees, reduce funding slightly for higher education and ask our corporations to temporarily suspend, but not stop, a law that lets them use losses from one year to off-set what they owe to the state over 20 years.

Once the budget makes it through the House, the Senate will spend much of the remainder of the month making whatever changes it feels is necessary.  We are still on track to have a final compromise ready before April.

As always, if you would like to let me know your thoughts on this legislative session, my address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181.  For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305, and the Spanish line is 866-840-6574.  If you would like to know the status of a particular bill, that number is 866-840-2835.  All of these are toll-free.

I hope to hear from you soon.

State Representative Rick Rand