- Associated Press - Thursday, December 31, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky state lawmakers return to Frankfort on Tuesday for a 60-day legislative session with a new Republican governor, a bare-knuckle battle for control of the state House and a massive pension shortfall.

The issue sure to dominate the session will be how to spend $21.4 billion in tax money over the next two years. But lawmakers will have plenty of other matters to contend with along the way.



Kentucky’s two largest retirement systems, one for state workers and another for public school teachers, are running out of money. That won’t happen this year, but if lawmakers don’t take steps to pay for them now, it could mean big trouble in the future.

Both systems have requested hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending to stay afloat - requests so large they make it difficult to find the money. House Democrats likely will try to borrow $3.3 billion to prop up the teachers’ retirement system, a proposal they passed last session that failed in the Senate.



More than 400,000 people in Kentucky have enjoyed three years of free health care coverage thanks to the federal government. But starting in 2017, taxpayers must start paying their share of the bill. Senate Republican President Robert Stivers said that will cost $250 million. It appears Republicans will not try to block the spending because of the chaos such a move would create. But new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has said he wants to repeal the expanded Medicaid program and replace it with something else.



Local governments have mostly given up on asking the state legislature for money, because the answer is usually “no.” That’s why they want to temporarily raise local sales taxes to pay for big projects, like roads and utility systems. It would require an amendment to the state’s constitution, which requires a public referendum. Most legislative leaders on both sides support the idea, but the proposal died last session after large manufacturers complained it would increase their already expensive power bills. Supporters are regrouping to try again in 2016.



Senate Republicans have tried for years to make it illegal for companies to require their employees to join a union. But House Democrats have always blocked the idea, usually with the support of a Democratic governor. Now Kentucky has a Republican governor who has made passing a “right to work” law a priority of his administration. House Democrats are likely to continue to block this given their party’s strong support among unions, but expect the calls to grow louder for its passage.



In 2015, The Democratic-controlled House killed a Republican effort to increase how much money people could donate to political candidates. In 2016, after taking a beating in the November elections, more Democrats may have decided that stricter limits didn’t do them much good. A bill sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo would raise the individual and political action committee contribution limits to $2,000 from $1,000. The new rules would take effect for the November 2016 elections, where Democrats and Republicans are expected to fiercely compete for control of the state House of Representatives.



In 2015, the House passed a statewide smoking ban in public workplaces for the first time in its history. The bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate. But some prominent Republican senators are pushing to change that, including state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a physician. Expect anti-smoking advocates to make another strong push for a statewide smoking ban.



Kentucky law enforcement officers have to take 40 hours of training each year. The state pays them an extra $3,100 as an incentive to complete the training. The money comes from an assessment on insurance policies. Usually the state collects a lot more money than it needs to pay the incentive. Whatever money is left over is used to balance the budget. Law enforcement officers don’t like this, and they have asked lawmakers to increase the incentive to $4,000. Gov. Matt Bevin was noncommittal during a speech to the state sheriff’s association in September, but he did promise not to use the money for purposes other than public safety.



Some Senate Republicans want to push back the start of the public school year. A bill sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer would not allow public schools to start before the Monday closest to Aug. 26. Most schools start around the first week of August now. Thayer says the move would boost the state’s tourism industry, which suffers once the kids go back to school. Bevin has said he supports the idea.

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