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General Assembly nears halfway mark

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One of the country’s great success stories over the last several decades has been the steep and steady decline in highway fatalities.
It’s a welcome trend that has been especially pronounced here in Kentucky.  According to the state’s Office of Highway Safety, you have to go back to 1949 to find a year that had fewer than the commonwealth had in 2013.
Helping that along is a variety of traffic-safety laws the General Assembly has adopted over the years.  Those range from lengthening the time it takes teenagers to get an unrestricted driver’s license to cracking down on drunk and drugged driving. 
Making sure people are secure in their vehicle has long been a safety concern as well, especially when it comes to children.  Kentucky is not alone in this area, of course, with all 50 states requiring child-safety seats for infants and toddlers and all but South Dakota and Florida requiring booster seats for older children still too small for traditional seatbelts.
A report early this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscores how much of a positive impact the increased use of these seats has had across the country.  Between 2002 and 2011, the number of highway fatalities among children 12 and younger dropped by 43 percent.
On Thursday last week, the House voted for legislation designed to build on these gains.  If House Bill 199 becomes law, the minimum height for booster seats would remain at 40 inches, but the upper limit would rise from 50 to 57 inches.  The age requirement, meanwhile, would go from seven to eight in most cases.
That legislation is one of the House’s and Governor Beshear’s top priorities this session.  During his State of the Commonwealth address last month, he noted that this change would meet the recommendations of federal highway safety officials and pediatricians alike.
Another major initiative the House supports this year also cleared the chamber last week.  House Bill 2 calls for expanding a pilot program Governor Beshear began in 2012 to help college students in Eastern Kentucky complete their four-year degree close to home with the help of grants funded by the coal-severance tax.
So far, this pilot program has helped about 90 students graduate, and several hundred others who are participating are on track to follow them.
In addition to making the program permanent, this legislation would expand it to all 34 of Kentucky’s coal-producing counties.  To qualify, students would have to have at least 60 credit hours and be taking upper-level courses at an approved postsecondary school or satellite campus in a coal-producing area.  Grants would vary depending on other financial aid and tuition costs, and there is a provision to help those whose degree program is not offered in a coal county.
Another piece of legislation making it through the House last week would have the General Assembly’s administrative arm, known as the Legislative Research Commission, study whether counties should have the option to move toward centralized voting centers rather than precincts, and whether the voting period should be extended.
If approved, this study could help us better understand whether these moves would be more helpful or hurtful.
Outside of the legislative process, but still good news for the state, Governor Beshear announced on Thursday that Kentucky saw a sharp increase in exports last year.  Sales went up 14 percent, which was the second-highest rate among the states and seven times higher than the national average.
Overall, Kentucky shipped more than $25 billion worth of goods and services to nearly 200 countries in 2013.  Saudi Arabia was highlighted as a major new destination for our motor vehicles, with that nation buying $610 million worth in 2013, up from $38 million in 2012.
This week marks the halfway point of the legislative session, meaning we only have about 30 working days remaining. 
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly.