FRANKFORT - Although legislative sessions in odd-numbered years are relatively new in Kentucky — the first was held in 2001 — the General Assembly has long met during the first full week of January in these years to elect House and Senate leaders and update committee assignments.
While the top four leaders in both chambers remained the same last week, there were some changes in the other leadership positions; in fact, nine of the 16 House and Senate leaders are new.
My committee assignments, meanwhile, will allow me to continue to represent our district well. For the next two years, I will serve on the following committees: Agriculture & Small Business; Education; Banking & Insurance; Economic Development; and Appropriations & Revenue, which writes and oversees the state budget.
I'm also pleased to chair the Tobacco Settlement Oversight Committee and the Tobacco Task Force.
Beyond completing this organizational work, the General Assembly heard from Gov. Steve Beshear Wednesday evening as he gave the final State of the Commonwealth address of his administration.
He used his remarks to note the challenges and opportunities facing Kentucky since he first took office in late 2007. Over the last seven years, for example, the state's budget has been cut 15 times for a combined total of $1.6 billion.
The economic trend behind that, however, appears to be reversing. He said that since the General Assembly revamped the state's business incentives in 2009, these new programs have helped about 700 businesses locate here or expand, with investment nearly reaching $10 billion. If these projects meet their goals, they will save or create about 57,000 jobs.
In education, he said that the college- and career-readiness rate of our graduating high school students has grown from 38 percent in 2011 to more than 60 percent now, and our graduation rate is the 12th-best nationwide and better than five of our seven surrounding states.
In focusing on legislation being considered this year, he said it is imperative that the General Assembly pass a new law combating the state's heroin epidemic. He cited stats showing that, in 2011, five percent of people who died from overdoses had heroin in their system, but in 2013, it was 32 percent.
Between 2010 and 2014, meanwhile, the Kentucky State Police crime lab saw its workload in analyzing heroin cases go up by a factor of four.
Both the House and Senate are looking for ways to reduce these figures by increasing treatment while cracking down on higher-level dealers, and both chambers are committed to passing a law by the time we finish our work in March.
Another area Beshear advocated for was increasing civil protections for victims of dating violence, an area where Kentucky unfortunately trails the rest of the nation. He pointed to a study showing one in four women over 65 in this country say they have been physically hurt by a partner, and more than 14 percent of Kentucky's high school students say they have been a victim in this type of case, one of the highest rates among the states.
Young adults have a difficult time obtaining a domestic violence order, though, because they often do not meet its criteria, which call for them to have been married to or lived with the abuser or to have a child in common. My hope is that we can pass a law to better protect these victims, and like heroin, there appears to be a growing consensus to make a positive change.
Also, I am looking at legislation that would provide limited state funding for local economic development and possibly legislation that will increase penalties for those who illegally pass school buses when they are loading or unloading students.
These are just a few of the issues that will be debated during the legislative session's remaining 26 working days, which will begin in early February. I will cover more in the weeks ahead.
As that process gets underway, I encourage you to follow the flow of bills and resolutions and to let me know your thoughts or concerns. Your input is crucial to this process.
You can write to me at Room 329F, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Ave., Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Wilson.Stone@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305. To check the status of a bill, you can call 866-840-2835, and if you have internet access, the General Assembly's website — www.lrc.ky.gov — is another great resource that features the full text of legislation and House and Senate votes.
I hope to hear from you soon.