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Budget vote expected this week

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As it normally does during the first full week of March in even-numbered years, the Kentucky House of Representatives will vote on its proposed budget this week to run state government.            

House leaders and those serving on the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, which I chair, have been studying the two-year spending plan since Governor Beshear presented his proposal in mid-January. While it is too soon to say what the final version will look like - that won’t be known until the legislative session ends next month - we do know that it won’t be easy, though there is hope that the recent signs of growth in the economy may help.  Next week, I will take an in-depth look at what the House wants to do.

As the final details of that plan were being hammered out last week, the House moved several other key initiatives forward, either in committee or in the full chamber.

On Wednesday, for example, the House Judiciary Committee put its support behind two bills that have the same goal: Cutting illegal drug use. One would expand the state’s prescription drug monitoring system, making it easier for law enforcement to track both doctors who improperly prescribe strong pain medicine as well as addicts who doctor shop. This will help us shut down the often fly-by-night “pill mills” that have cropped up in recent years.

The other bill, meanwhile, will provide a more comprehensive approach when it comes to taking unregulated and dangerous synthetic drugs off the shelves for good.

These drugs, often intentionally mislabeled as bath salts or plant food, have become especially prominent during the last two years. In 2010, for example, the American Association of Poison Control Centers said there were 3,200 calls nationally involving synthetic drugs. Last year, that number jumped to 13,000, and it will undoubtedly be much higher this year.

Kentucky has been very proactive in battling synthetic drugs, but the underground chemists have been able to change the formulas of these drugs faster than the law can keep up. This legislation would stop this cat-and-mouse game by broadening the drug’s definition and enacting much stiffer penalties for those who peddle them. That would include time in prison and potentially significant fines.

Several bills making it through the House last week involve education. One calls for more study of middle school sports, which are not overseen at the state level like high school sports, while another would boost opportunities in career and technical education, in an effort to better help those students who might otherwise drop out of high school.

The House also gave final approval to Senate legislation that will now grant alternative high school diplomas rather than just a certificate to special needs students who complete their modified curriculum.

In a related matter, the House also approved “green schools” legislation that will open up a pool of money school districts could access to pay for energy-saving upgrades.  This would apply to qualified manufacturers, too.

In matters of public safety, the House voted on several other bills worth noting.  They would:

*Make it much tougher for copper thieves to get a quick sale from secondary metal recyclers.

*Clarify what steps a coal miner has to take if he or she fails a drug test, in an effort to get them the treatment they need.  Kentucky was the nation’s leader in 2006 when we passed a law requiring miners to be drug free to be certified to work.

*Give the owners of motorless, slow-moving vehicles the opportunity to use reflective tape rather than the current reflective triangle.  This has been a pressing issue in areas of the state where the Amish have refused to use the triangle for their buggies.  Hopefully, this will prove to be a workable compromise.

*Ensure that those ordering catfish in restaurants know from which country their meal came. This will better promote American-raised catfish.

On a personal note, I want to thank many of those who took time out of their schedule to travel to the Capitol last week for “Disabilities Awareness Day.” This event recognizes the estimated 874,000 Kentuckians who have a disability, and it highlights the need for services that help them maintain fulfilling lives.

With the legislative session having only a few weeks remaining, it’s very important that you continue letting me know your thoughts and concerns on the issues before the General Assembly.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.