Legislature has chance to rise above politics and do some good

Lawmakers return to Frankfort Tuesday for the main portion of the 2011 General Assembly. With the two parties sharing legislative power and with Republican Senate President David Williams looking to oust incumbent Democrat Steve Beshear in this year's gubernatorial election, the bar for measuring productivity is set very low going into the session.

Given the politically contentious atmosphere we expect to permeate the Capitol throughout the next several weeks, the temptation is to urge lawmakers just to do no harm before they go home in mid-March. But such a recommendation would give short shrift to a few important issues that command legislative attention.

Filling a $142 million hole in the Medicaid budget heads the list. Beshear proposes to shift money from the second year of the budget into the remaining five months of the current fiscal year. His plan also calls for expanded use of managed care to generate savings that offset the resulting shortfall in the second budget year.

Whether lawmakers go along with Beshear or come up with their own plan, the Medicaid hole needs to be filled. Failure to do so could result in substantial cuts in payments to health care providers during the remaining months of this fiscal year.

Penal code reform ranks just behind Medicaid on this General Assembly's "bucket list." A task force completed its study of the issue earlier this month and submitted a host of common sense recommendations designed to slow or reverse the rise in the cost of housing state prisoners.

Sen. Tom Jensen and Rep. John Tilley, chairmen of the two chambers' judiciary committees, will draft legislation based on the task force's work. The more recommendations they include in the bill, the better. The rate of growth in the corrections budget — from $140 million to $440 million in the past 20 years — is simply unsustainable.

After these two biggies, the short list of things legislators need to do includes:

■ Raise the school dropout age from 16 to 18.

The estimated 16,000 young Kentuckians who fail to graduate with their contemporaries each year will earn on average $7,000 to $10,000 less a year than they would have earned if they had stayed in school and earned a diploma. They are also more likely to need public assistance and commit crimes, thus becoming a burden to other taxpayers.

■ Cap the interest rate on payday lending.

Congress capped the interest rate on such loans to members of the military at 36 percent; 15 states have similar caps. Kentucky should join them so state residents don't get trapped in the cycle of debt that comes from rolling over one high-interest loan into another.

■ Require notification of the coroner's office for all deaths in nursing homes. In addition, require background checks on all employees of nursing homes, not just those responsible for patient care.

■ Give state universities some needed fiscal flexibility by letting them issue their own bonds when there is a dedicated revenue stream to meet the bond payments.

■ Enact a statewide smoking ban, but only if it does nothing to weaken local bans in effect now or that may be enacted later. Kentuckians' health will be the better for it. Protect the health of Kentucky's youth, too, by banning smoking in motor vehicles in which children are riding.

■ Strengthen regulation of for-profit colleges to help assure their students get the education they have been promised without running up excessive debt.

This is not a long to-do list for lawmakers. But if these few important issues get addressed in an atmosphere dominated by gubernatorial politics, it will be a productive session for Kentuckians.