Child-protection bills pass in late flurry; pension bill remains in limbo

lblackford@herald-leader.comMarch 12, 2013 

Child advocates celebrated Tuesday as Kentucky lawmakers endorsed two of their highest priorities: an independent panel to review child abuse deaths and stronger protection of children sold for sex.

Those measures were among a flurry of bills the General Assembly considered in a day of meetings that lasted until about 10:30 p.m. Lawmakers sent several bills to the governor's desk for signing but left several prominent proposals hanging as the legislature enters a 12-day recess.

The list of key bills left in limbo includes an overhaul of Kentucky's public pension system, regulation of hemp farming and electronic voting for overseas military members.

Leading lawmakers promised to continue working toward compromise on all three bills, with hopes of passing them in the last two days of the session, March 25 and 26. The legislature could act on bills those last two days but would give up its right to override any subsequent vetoes by Gov. Steve Beshear.

If House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers fail to strike a deal on the pension bill, Beshear has signaled that he would probably call a special legislative session to deal with the issue at a cost to taxpayers of more than $60,000 a day.

Despite many legislative logjams, advocates cheered the passage of legislation that they said would save the lives of children.

Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, received a standing ovation Tuesday after House Bill 3, a measure to strengthen the state's human-trafficking law, won final passage on a 97-0 vote.

The measure would provide more training for law enforcement on human trafficking, allow police and prosecutors to seize assets of those involved in human trafficking, and earmark money from the seized assets to pay for victim services. The bill also allows human trafficking victims to receive treatment rather than jail time, a provision sometimes referred to as a safe-harbor protection.

Since Kentucky passed its first human trafficking law in 2008, more than 100 victims of human trafficking have been identified, but fewer than 20 of those cases have been prosecuted. In February, Overly told the House that the vast majority of those cases involve Kentucky teens — mainly girls — who had been trafficked for sex by a relative.

Beshear said late Tuesday that he looked forward to signing HB 3.

"This is an important bill, particularly for children, and I congratulate Rep. Sannie Overly for her tireless efforts to pass this legislation," he said in a statement.

The House also gave final passage to House Bill 290, which would establish an independent review panel in Kentucky to examine deaths and critical injuries from child abuse or neglect.

The House voted unanimously to accept Senate changes to the bill, which would increase the panel's transparency and improve oversight.

Beshear created a similar independent panel by executive order in July after newspaper stories highlighted shortcomings in the state child-protection system. The panel needed legislative approval to continue.

"The child fatality review panel will help us learn from our mistakes and improve practices in the child welfare system to prevent future child abuse deaths," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "It will help us understand what's working in the system and what isn't."

The House also approved a bill to create more safe drop-off centers for parents in custody disputes. The bill was conceived after a fatal shooting at Hazard Community College during a custody swap. The measure, which originated in the Senate, was attached to a House Bill dealing with child custody laws.

Bills denied

Proposals that did not make it through the legislative process Tuesday included a bill to expand a scholarship program for students in coal-producing counties, and a bill that would deregulate land-line phone service in much of the state. Proponents of the telephone deregulation measure said it would expand Internet service into rural areas; opponents feared that it would leave many rural residents without reliable phone service.

A bill that would grant civil domestic violence protections to dating couples also floundered Tuesday. Although the measure made it out of a Senate committee for the first time in many years, it did not make it onto the Senate floor.

"Our disappointment is acute, for it is on behalf of all women in Kentucky who would have been better protected by passage of the bill," said Carol Jordan, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women. "Theirs is justice delayed, but we shall continue our work in earnest to ensure that, in the end, it will not be denied."

Pension overhaul

Lawmakers' feelings about pension reform waxed and waned throughout the day Tuesday but ended on a sour note.

Stivers said about 10:30 p.m. that he does not "see a lot of hope at this time that the House, Senate and executive branch can reach an agreement."

Earlier in the day, Beshear said he was hopeful about reaching a compromise on pension reform.

"I think we're making some progress," Beshear said, but "it's going to take some time."

He later met privately with Stivers, R-Manchester, and Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg.

"I think we are very close on the framework of the bill, but more work has to be done on the funding issue," Stivers said after the meeting.

"It's a long journey, but at least we're moving forward in a positive manner," Stumbo said Tuesday night.

The main sticking point is the House's insistence on new revenue to help fund Kentucky's ailing pension system, which covers nearly 325,000 people and faces more than $30 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The House has proposed a plan to help finance the pension system that relies heavily on proceeds from expanded lottery games and instant racing games at horse racetracks. The Senate has said that economic growth might produce enough tax revenue to pay for the extra $100 million in General Fund money needed by the pension system in 2014.

If Stumbo and Stivers can't strike a deal before March 26, Beshear has signaled that he would probably call a special legislative session.

The Senate's version of Senate Bill 2, the pension overhaul bill, includes moving new employees into a hybrid 401(k)-style plan and eliminating cost-of-living increases for retirees. The House plan keeps the traditional defined-benefit structure and allows cost-of-living increases only when there is money to pay for them.

Military voting

Also unclear is the fate of Senate Bill 1, a measure pushed by Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes to make it easier for Kentucky soldiers overseas to vote.

Late Tuesday, the bill was sent to a conference committee so lawmakers from both parties could work out their differences. However, the committee never met. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said legislators wouldn't work on the bill until the veto period.

Grimes prefers a bill that would allow electronic transmission of ballots to and from the soldiers. The Senate version of SB 1 would require soldiers to return paper copies of their ballots to county clerks in the mail.

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