Politics & Government

Kentucky legislative leaders say jobs will be their focus in 2017

Legislative leaders gave a “sneak preview” Monday of the upcoming law-making session, saying Republican majorities in both the House and Senate will focus on jobs.

Other major issues like tax and pension reform and constitutional amendments will have to wait, they said at a legislative preview conference of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce at Lexington’s Marriott Griffin Gate Resort. About 300 people attended.

The priority of Kentucky’s 2017 General Assembly, which begins Jan. 3, will be “to figure out how to create a better business environment to create jobs,” said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. He was joined on a leadership panel with Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and new House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell, R-Lancaster.

The session will mark the first time Republicans have controlled the House since 1921. They have controlled the Senate since 2000 and gained control of the governor’s office last year.

Thayer said the state’s business community “will be pleased” with the 2017 law-making session that runs for 30 days through March 30.

Labor probably will not.

Stivers said Republican control of the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office, is likely to lead to passage of a right-to-work bill and repeal of the prevailing wage law — issues that traditionally have died in the Democratic-controlled House.

Right-to-work legislation would allow people to work for unionized employers without joining the union. Labor says it is designed to bust unions, but business says it will create more jobs.

The prevailing wage law generally sets higher wage rates for public works projects. Supporters of it, including unions, say it is needed to provide quality work in public projects. Its opponents contend that it needlessly drives up construction costs.

Stivers said repeal of the prevailing wage law could save millions of dollars in renovations for the Lexington Convention Center. Thayer said Scott County could save $4 million to $6 million on construction of a new high school if prevailing wage is repealed.

Shell acknowledged that some new Republican House members have a problem with right-to-work legislation, but Thayer said Democratic lawmakers would vote for it. Every neighboring state is a right-to-work state, said Stivers.

All three Republican leaders agreed that the 2017 session probably will take some action on charter schools. That could be pilot projects in the state’s two most populous counties — Jefferson and Fayette.

Forty-three states and Washington, D.C., have some form of charter schools, which can be public or private and can take many forms.

Kentucky considered legislation this year that would make charter schools part of the state’s public education system, but exempt from some regulations. Charter schools would have been tuition-free and non-profit with no religious affiliation under that proposal.

Brad Montell, deputy secretary of the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said at Monday’s conference that charter schools are not designed to replace existing public schools but would be a tool to improve achievement gaps.

Critics of charter schools often contend they would take money away from public schools.

Republican state Rep. John “Bam” Carney of Campbellsville, the new chairman of the House Education Committee, said public schools will always be the “No. 1 source” for education in Kentucky.

“But we have to look at all options,” he said, adding that accountability and transparency have to be the same for charter and public schools.

The three legislative leaders at Monday’s conference said tax and pension reform likely will be addressed in a special, five-day legislative session in the fall of 2017.

Thayer said transparency of state pensions, including legislators, may be taken up in the upcoming session. He said if he left the legislature now, he would get about $1,500 a month in legislative retirement.

Thayer also said any changes to Kentucky’s Constitution probably will not be considered until the 2018 session. Sessions in even-numbered years last for 60 days.

Republicans have been talking about changing the state Constitution to put elections for governor in even-numbered years. That would put them the same year as presidential elections, where Republican candidates usually fare better than Democratic candidates.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics