Even as many schools closed across the commonwealth due to snow, Frankfort shrugged off the white stuff and continued with our work. After this week, only a few days remain of the 2013 Session.
A number of bills have come out of the Senate this session to address different educational issues in Kentucky. We all agree that delivering a quality education is critical for Kentucky’s youth. Further, I believe we can all agree that teachers and administrators should be equipped with the tools and options to provide such an education. The Commonwealth has in place a process for improving struggling schools. When the state Department of Education cites a school for being persistently low-achieving, there are several options the school board can choose from such as restaffing, allowing an outside management company to lead a turnaround effort, or even closing. Senate Bill 176 will add another option: the local school board can allow a petition to convert the school to a charter school. Please keep in mind that these are extreme measures for extreme situations. Unfortunately, the fact is that we have schools that are graduating only a small percentage of students. No one can deny that this is unacceptable and we must give parents, teachers, and communities every tool possible to make sure our kids are college or career ready. Anything less is a disservice to the students and the future of Kentucky.
I am also pleased that a bipartisan compromise has been achieved on the Governor’s drop-out bill. Senate Bill 97 allows local school districts to adopt a policy requiring students to stay in school until age 18, or graduation whichever comes first, with the understanding that they would have to offer an approved alternative education program that would help meet the needs of students most likely to drop out. Further, once 55% of school districts have programs in place, the rest of the state will come on board so that we can all work off the same page. With this bill, decisions are not made by a Frankfort bureaucrat and educators are better prepared to assist all students.
Human trafficking is a real problem in the United States with an estimated 300,000 citizens victimized, and tragically most of those are young children. Kentucky unfortunately has its share of cases, and we believe the number to be underreported for several reasons, including the lack of training for law enforcement to recognize trafficking for what it really is, and the lack of adequate protections for child victims. I was thankful to grant a hearing to, twice vote for, and speak on behalf of House Bill 3 yesterday in the Senate, which aims to address these issues. HB 3 contains a “safe-harbor” provision that allows child victims to be protected rather than incarcerated or prosecuted for engaging in criminal acts, which are sadly often sex related, against their will. The legislation also requires that law enforcement be trained to spot human trafficking, allows anyone to report suspected human trafficking to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the local prosecutor’s office or to local law enforcement, and allows law enforcement to seize real property of those convicted of human trafficking.
As we continue to advance in technology, and our young people are ever more equipped with web-connected smartphones, tablets and computers, we must be vigilant against online predators. The Attorney General’s office has a cybercrimes unit to investigate these predators, as does the Kentucky State Police. House Bill 39 gives the KSP the ability to issue an administrative subpoena to investigate claims of online child exploitation in Kentucky. This narrowly drafted subpoena power is necessary to protect those Kentuckians who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and provide the immediacy that is often necessary to intervene.
Two important anti-drug measures also passed. House Bill 217 is the General Assembly’s attempt to curb the unintended consequences of last year’s House Bill 1 which shut down pill mills across the state but also put undue regulatory burdens on doctors, nursing homes, hospitals and most importantly patients. The bill adjusts treatment protocols to allow medical professionals the flexibility they need to adequately treat patients without opening the floodgates for unscrupulous doctors. The bill was a successful compromise among many stakeholders, and had the support of leadership of the House and Senate, as well as the Governor. House Bill 8 is yet another bill geared to combat synthetic drugs. These drugs, which are designed to chemically mimic certain drugs and controlled substances such as marijuana and meth, are constantly evolving as bad actors continue to try to addict our young people. They may look harmless and be sold in innocuous packages of bath salts or incense but make no mistake; they are dangerous and often life-threatening.
Another bipartisan bill, House Bill 1, also passed which will provide much-needed transparency to special taxing districts. While there are many taxing districts that are acting appropriately to their mandate, there are unfortunately some that have abused the trust that the people have put in them. HB 1 adds accountability and transparency to these authorities’ finances by directing them to publish their financial statements online and provides for regular audits.
Finally, I was very happy to vote for House Bill 279, known as the Religious Freedom Act. This bill protects religious liberty from government overstepping its bounds. It is in reaction to a Kentucky Supreme Court decision from last year. HB 279 reaffirms the standard of “strict scrutiny” as the standard for religious freedom cases, and matches the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 which had nearly unanimous support in Congress.
As I write this, I remain hopeful that the House and the Senate can work out a compromise on Senate Bill 2, the commonsense public pension reform bill. The bill does not apply to teachers and does not impact current employees or retirees but it does put protections in place that save the system from insolvency without additional costs to the taxpayers. There are places to make cuts to state spending and borrowing without diminishing funds for critical needs like education or law enforcement. When I see no movement toward even discussing the savings by repealing or at least amending the prevailing wage laws in Kentucky, much less actually trying to do so, I become disgusted when funding for education is threatened. Even more upsetting to me is the idea that some of our elected leaders would rather pay for pensions out of the pockets of Kentucky’s poorest through expanded gaming, rather than sacrifice their sacred cows. We most certainly need to fully fund the pension system, but I refuse to do so in that way.
Please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 toll-free or you can see the action yourself by looking up www.lrc.ky.gov .
Senator Whitney Westerfield (R-Hopkinsville) represents the 3rd District including Christian, Logan, and Todd counties. He is Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Vice-Chair of the Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection Committee. Senator Westerfield serves on the Agriculture Committee, the Capital Planning Advisory Board, the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, the Tobacco Settlement Agreement Fund Oversight Committee, and the Transportation Committee.