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Social services advocates expect little

FRANKFORT — As state leaders grapple with one of the worst budget shortfalls in 30 years, advocates for children, the elderly and the mentally ill say they expect few major initiatives to be passed this legislative session.

Still, youth advocates are pushing three key pieces of legislation that call for no additional money — increasing the high school drop-out age to 18, putting caps on the interest rates for payday loans, and decreasing the number of children locked up in state juvenile detention facilities for skipping class or other unruly behavior.

The General Assembly, which reconvenes next week, will first tackle a $456 million projected shortfall that must be rectified through more cuts or an increase in taxes.

Many social service groups are trying to preserve funding for vital services and restore funding to already cash-strapped programs.

"We're being very practical," Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said of the legislative agenda of social service groups.

But all the groups have one common agenda: backing Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to raise the cigarette tax to $1. The increase would generate revenue and cut into Kentucky's high smoking rates, social service advocates say.

"I think the governor has made it clear that, if we don't get some new revenue in the system, there are more rounds of cuts coming," said Sheila Schuster, a mental health advocate. "We think 70 cents should be the minimum."

So far, lawmakers have given the proposal a lukewarm reception. The other agenda items of social service advocates also face an uncertain future.

Bills to raise the dropout age have been proposed in the past but have failed. However, more and more education groups are on board with the idea, but want to see details before publicly backing such a bill. No bill has been filed yet.

Officials with the Department for Education, for example, have said in the past that they would like to see more funding for alternative programs that would keep students in school if the drop-out age is bumped from 16 to 18. Many concede that the bill might not be passed this session, but say it might have a shot in 2010.

Curbing interest rates on payday lenders also seems to be a long shot this year.

"I think it has broad public support," Brooks said. "But there is little political will to take it on."

Last year, the House passed a bill that would create a database of payday lenders, but the measure was never called for a vote in the Senate.

In contrast, other states have had success placing caps on the interest rates for payday loans. Ohio voters overwhelmingly supported a measure last year that capped payday loan interest rates at 28 percent.

One piece of potential legislation that has support from Democrats and Republicans in both legislative chambers is a bill that would decrease the number of youth offenders incarcerated for status offenses such as truancy.

A recent study showed that Kentucky has the second-highest rate for incarcerating status offenders in the country. Moreover, black Kentucky teens are more likely to be locked up than white teens for the same offense. Incarcerating Kentucky teens for minor offenses is costly and ineffective, Brooks said.

"When you detain a status offender, it is the most expensive way and it is the least effective way to treat this population," Brooks said. "You're locking kids up with kids who have committed more serious crimes. You're just creating a pipeline to the adult prisons."

No specific legislation has been filed yet, but Brooks said a group of judges, prosecutors and youth advocates have been meeting since December to figure out ways to curb the detention of status offenses without adding costs, making it more palatable for legislators.

"We know that the one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on is that we have a prison population crisis," Brooks said.