By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
A bill to improve financial reporting by 1,260 or so special taxing districts may face changes in the Republican-controlled Senate after easy passage in the Democratic-controlled House.
The bill was sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, following a review of those districts by Democratic Auditor Adam Edelen.
Based on Edelen’s recommendations the bill would require taxing districts to submit financial reports and audits to a central registry maintained by the Department of Local Government. The reports would be displayed on a website for taxpayers to review as well. Board members of such districts would have to comply with the local code of ethics.
Districts which fail to comply would face audits by Edelen’s office.
Some expressed concern the bill might allow local fiscal courts to intervene in the governance and funding of the districts, a particular concern by libraries, some of which aren’t even taxing districts as defined by current law.
But Edelen and Stumbo maintain the bill did not change the governance or financing of the districts — it simply sought to provide accountability and transparency to taxpayers.
But Friday Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he expects to amend the bill in the Senate.
“There are some of us that think that bill doesn’t go far enough in terms of providing the proper oversight when it comes to budgets and tax-rate increases by these special taxing districts,” Thayer said.
In the past, Thayer and others have discussed making districts get approval from their local fiscal courts for budgets and tax rates.
Mary Lynn Collins of the Friends of Kentucky Libraries said last week her organization supports the measure as passed by the House.
She said, however, it will be on guard about the possibility of potential amendments to turn the bill into something libraries might find unacceptable.
“We will be watching very closely to see what amendments will be filed,” Collins said. “We’re very supportive of House Bill 1 as it’s written, but we’ll look at each and every amendment that is filed.”
Friday brought to close a busy week of the odd-year, 30-day session which on Friday concluded its 13th day. Several measures got out of one chamber or the other, though some of them — like the special taxing district bill — may face challenges in the other chamber.
The Senate passed its plan to shore up the state employee pension fund. The bill would place new employees into a hybrid cash-balance plan; maintain current defined benefits for existing employees and retirees; and end cost-of-living adjustments.
But it provides no funding for an estimated payment into the fund next year of $327 million and that’s where it may run into trouble in the House where Speaker Greg Stumbo said he wants a dedicated funding source for the bill.
The Senate also passed a bill to set up a regulatory framework for growing industrial hemp in Kentucky — if the federal government allows. It has been a major issue for Republi-can Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer but Gov. Steve Beshear and Stumbo have expressed skepticism about the market for hemp.
They also cite concerns of law enforcement about distinguishing between hemp and marijuana, and the bill is expected to face tough going in the House.
The Senate passed a bill to allow post-conviction DNA testing for felony inmates seeking to prove their innocence. Under current law, only death-row inmates may seek such testing. But the bill, sponsored by John Schickel, R-Union, makes a concession to prosecutors: it would not apply to those who entered guilty pleas or Alford Pleas.
Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, has a similar bill in the House, but it includes those who take Alford pleas or plead guilty.
The Senate also passed a controversial bill to set up medical review panels for complaints against nursing homes prior to taking those complaints to court. Democrats opposed the bill sponsored by Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, and Sen. Ray Jones, mounted a spirited attack on the bill replete with enlarged photographs of patients who suffered nursing home abuse or neglect.
Thursday the House once again passed a bill to gradually increase the high school drop-out age. Under a bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, the dropout age, now 16, would increase to 17 in 2017 and to 18 in 2018. The bill has passed the House at least twice previously but died in the Senate, but Greer said he’s modestly optimistic it will fare better in the upper chamber this year.
The House also passed a bill to allow low-level felons who have completed their sentences to have their criminal conviction expunged if they have no other convictions or felony charges for five years.
And it passed a human trafficking bill which would offer them protective custody and protection from prosecution for forced crimes such as prostitution and by creating a victim assistance fund to help them.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.