Kentucky editorial roundup
Summary of recent Kentucky newspaper editorials:
The State Journal on Kentuckians waiting on a pension bill:
Just as it was last year and last week, the state’s pension crisis continues to be the commonwealth’s most significant problem.
Sooner or later, state legislators must introduce a bill that addresses the issue or experience the symptoms of which Gov. Matt Bevin has warned — “The money will run out. The checks will stop.”
In Bevin’s address to the legislature in mid-January, he outlined a budget that, though couched nicely in his speech, would be detrimental to many areas of state government.
Simply put, Bevin’s proposal committed to fully fund the pension system. Deep spending cuts will be needed to make that happen without raising revenue. Sure, Bevin said tax reform is coming, but that’s a broad-enough phrase that the contents of any future proposal are unclear.
Bevin’s speech is old hat. Those who pay attention to state politics are well aware of the basics of the budget problem that stem from the state’s massively underfunded pension and are compounded by lower-than-expected revenue. Bevin’s speech in January, however, proposed a solution, and at this moment the chief matter of concern is that the public is still waiting for the state legislature to finally introduce a pension bill.
It’s not that legislators are ignoring their basic job duties. Bills are still being passed through both chambers.
Between the time Bevin gave his budget-focused speech and Tuesday, more than one bill has been introduced, passed three readings in one chamber and moved to the other. H.B. 213 is one such example.
Introduced on Jan. 18, H.B. 213 passed its third reading Jan 29. It was assigned to the Senate’s Health and Welfare Committee on Jan. 31. The measure — which passed the House by an 89-0 vote — makes small but important changes to prescription drug monitoring information.
While we’d encourage both bodies of the legislature to continue their work on bills such as H.B. 213, it’s of critical importance that legislators begin to show a sense of urgency by introducing a pension bill and beginning public debate.
Last year, Bevin raised the possibility of a special session on pension reform multiple times. Last week, acting House Speaker David Osborne said a bill could be filed early this week.
Now, we’re about 40 percent of the way through the regular session, and we’re still without a bill.
Sure, it’s a complicated task. An ideal proposal would be multifaceted — fully funding the state’s pension system and avoiding the types of austere cuts included in Bevin’s proposal by raising revenue. But the people of Kentucky elected legislators to tackle the kinds of complicated questions that surround the budget.
It’s possible a bill could be introduced today, and we’d finally know details of the legislature’s initial proposal. Perhaps there would still be ample time to pass a good bill during the regular session. For now, however, we’re left waiting for our state legislators to take action.
The Independent of Ashland on the state’s gas tax:
Kentucky Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, introduced proposed legislation in January that would raise the state’s gas tax by 3 cents to pay for school transportation expenses at public schools.
We documented the likelihood of this in December, writing on the front page of The Daily Independent how the state’s infrastructure is in dramatic need of an upgrade and that legislators and county leaders were floating the idea of raising the gas tax to fund road improvements. We also detailed how Kentucky levies its gas tax, kind of like a sales tax, in that it is based on the price of fuel. The problem with this approach is that the price of fuel is volatile. It goes up and it goes down, and in recent years, the price of gas has been mostly down, meaning the state, and in turn places like Boyd Greenup and Carter counties, get less money to keep their roads in shape.
In 2015 the state froze the rate of the tax and put a floor on it so if gas dropped below a certain price, for example, $2.18 per gallon, then no matter how low the price, the tax was restricted to the set floor.
Other states have recently started taxing gas not based on gas prices but instead to the inflation rate of the overall economy.
Flood said in a press release sent to the newspaper that if her legislation is passed the additional revenue would be locked in for school transportation costs.
“The state is constitutionally mandated to provide a safe and comprehensive learning environment for our students, so I think my bill is a sensible step in the right direction,” said Flood. “It will make sure that a portion of what we all pay for our highways goes toward getting our students safely to and from school. We all have a vested interest in making sure these buses are held to the highest standard of care and maintenance.”
Flood said $30 million would go to bonds for new buses and $60 million through the same formula the state now uses to pay its share of school transportation costs.
Flood’s intentions are certainly noble, and no one wants to see local school districts hammered by increased transportation costs due to upcoming state budget cuts. But there is one big problem with this proposal. It is the elephant in the room, and it is called the pension crisis.
Whatever happened to plans to fix the state’s pension catastrophe? No special session, no bipartisan solutions, no compromise. Instead, the state’s legislators are sticking their heads in the sand, catering to special interests and hoping it all just goes away.
No legislation raising even a penny in taxes should see the light of the day until our elected leaders address the pension crisis and put forth a sensible, reasonable plan to fund the state’s unfunded liabilities.
Harlan Daily Enterprise on water problems in counties:
It seems many of the state’s smaller governmental agencies are having a hard time providing basic services to residents. The most glaring recent example is the Martin County Water District, whose troubles have left many in the county without water for extended periods of time.
A recent report in the Lexington Herald-Leader shows that the people responsible for oversight of the agencies share much of the blame.
Michael Schmitt, chairman of the Kentucky Public Service Commission, may have been trying to sound tough when he said “I can tell you right now, this stops. We’re going to fix it. This has gone on for years and years.”
You almost have to ask whether you read that right.
Did he really say “years and years” when talking about problems with water, the most basic and critical of services provided by government.
Schmitt knew the solution, one that should have been chosen “years and years” ago, when he warned that an outside agency could be placed in charge of day-to-day operations or a merger with a nearly utility could be forced. Why a merger wasn’t pushed before is hard to understand. One has to wonder if this problem would have been allowed to continue for “years and years” if Schmitt and others on the commission were living in Martin County and had to endure life without water.
It would be “days and days” more likely if the lack of water hit a little closer to home to the people in charge of taking care of all Kentuckians, including those in rural areas like Martin County. Schmitt called Martin “by far the worst water district in the state of Kentucky” and yet they are still operating and are being given yet another chance.
Schmitt criticized the district for failing to collect about $650,000 in overdue bills in a hearing where the Martin board was asking for an emergency rate increase of nearly 50 percent for its 3,500 customers. Martin water officials said without the increase the district will miss payroll and collapse. That doesn’t seem like a bad idea after “years and years” of poor performance.
We’ve had issues with water service in parts of Harlan County, problems that have also been allowed to go on for years and years because it seems the people in charge are more concerned with hurting the feelings of water district officials and board members than the residents they are elected to serve.
Here’s an idea for future water problems. Instead of waiting “years and years” to solve problems with something as serious as safe drinking water, let’s move ahead immediately with putting people in charge who know what they are doing and won’t let some residents go years without paying their bills.
We probably don’t need to go as far as reducing our counties in Kentucky to only 34, as has been suggested by legislators in a recent proposal, but it’s past time to start putting people ahead of political kingdoms too small or inept to handle the basic jobs of government.
Water is much too important to be used in political games.