Anybody who heard my State of the Commonwealth address knows I had high hopes for the 2013 legislative session.
Buoyed by months of behind-the-scenes pre-session meetings with leadership and other key legislators, I confidently described a new atmosphere of civility and dignity in Frankfort marked by the willingness to engage in respectful dialogue and seek consensus, even amid philosophical differences.
I also noted a growing awareness that urgent progress was needed on numerous difficult issues.
With the sound of the gavel signaling the end of the session still echoing in the Capitol halls, the impressive list of accomplishments from the session suggests that my confidence was well-placed.
Despite this being a "short" session (30 days instead of 60), despite lingering tension from the bitter presidential election, and despite having a divided legislature, we made tremendous progress on improving Kentucky's competitive capacity and quality of life.
Among other things:
■We passed a bill that will keep teens from sabotaging their lives and economic stability by dropping out of school before they have enough education and training to get meaningful jobs. The Graduation Bill — which the First Lady, I and many others have been pushing for several sessions — allows local districts to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18, updating laws that were written in 1920, in a world that barely resembles the one today.
■We made several tweaks to the landmark prescription painkiller legislation passed in 2012 that will strengthen the regulatory framework designed to address devastating abuse and misuse of controlled substances. This will help us continue to make sure patients with legitimate needs get their prescriptions, while we keep targeting unlicensed pain clinics, reckless prescribers and criminal behavior.
■We authorized our public universities to fund 11 major construction projects with $363.3 million in "agency bonds," those funded by the institutions themselves that won't require money from the General Fund. The projects, which include student housing renovations, new student centers and classrooms, will create or support more than 5,100 jobs.
■We passed a number of bills that will help children, including better infant health screenings, increased protections against predators, alignment of state policies with federal child welfare rules and statutory approval of a panel I created to investigate cases of death or serious injury due to neglect or abuse. That panel is designed to see whether the system of protection broke down, and if so, to improve it.
■But perhaps the most significant accomplishment was our bipartisan agreement to solve our looming pension problem and to guarantee promised benefits to current state workers and retirees, all without balancing the books on the backs of our schoolchildren. We made important changes to stabilize our pension system, including: fully funding the annual increased estimated state obligation to the pension plan; creating a hybrid cash-balance plan for future state and local employees, which gives those new employees better portability of their pension benefits; providing for an annual cost-of-living adjustment for retirees if the General Assembly fully pre-funds it in the year it is provided, and improving transparency and legislative oversight of the Kentucky Retirement Systems and increasing local government representation on its board.
Not only did we solve the pension liability, we paid for it through $100 million in new funding, not by robbing money from education or other key services. No matter our political philosophies, none of us were willing to put our kids at risk of a stripped-down education.
We made several changes to our tax structure that, even though most taxpayers will see little to no change, collectively will raise the money to fund the pension fix. Those changes are a small step in the direction of a larger tax reform effort that I will continue to push as governor.
I was disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement on other protections for vulnerable populations, and we will continue to push for these in the years ahead. These include protection from secondhand smoke in public places, a registry of those who abuse elderly people, more widespread protection for people in dating relationships and more stringent booster seat laws that match national guidelines.
Most of the successes I listed above, and other bills that passed, were the product of a process that included rigorous debate and significant differences of opinion.
But by making sincere efforts to work through differences, and by keeping our eyes focused on the people, not politics, your elected leaders in Frankfort — Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate and in the office of the governor — were able to forge agreement.
This is how it should work.