Members of Health and Welfare Committee express support for smoke-free legislation

DSC_0020Ahead of the 2015 session, passionate opinions on the idea of a statewide smoking ban continued to be expressed as lawmakers and advocates discussed the issue in a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare Wednesday.

State Rep. Susan Westrom, D-Lexington, testified in front of the committee where she was joined by Brent Cooper, a northern Kentucky business owner who believes the state going smoke-free would help business in Kentucky rather than hurt it.

Cooper, president of Covington-based tech company C-Forward and a Kentucky Chamber Board Member, told legislators he disagrees with opponents of a statewide smoking ban who say that the legislation would be harmful to business—pointing to Cincinnati as an area directly across the state border where a ban is in place and bars and restaurants are not hindered in any way.

When it comes to the opposition to the legislation by some, Cooper said he believes some of the people fighting the smoke-free bill were also against the seatbelt law.

“But our state acknowledged a few things when it came to seat belts, they acknowledged that first seatbelts save lives. That’s the main reason to support this legislation, it saves lives,” Cooper said. “How often can you say that? This is something that saves lives but doesn’t raise taxes. And it’s reasonable.”

In response to concerns raised by some that smoke-free legislation is a slippery slope of government regulation, Cooper said he does not believe this proposal is an example of government overreach whatsoever.

“I am not worried about it going too far, you know why? Because we are not anywhere close to going far enough,” Cooper said. You can more of Cooper’s testimony to the committee in the video below:

Also testifying in front of the committee, Twin Lakes Medical Center CEO Wayne Meriwether told lawmakers the tobacco related health care costs in the state could be lessened by smoke free legislation and save taxpayer dollars.

Meriwether said tobacco-related health care costs overall reach $1.92 billion per year, also adding the cost for secondhand smoke costs total $106 million per year alone. (Hear more of the cost figures in the video below).

In response to the figures, state Sen. Julian Carroll, D-Frankfort, said that money needs to be spent elsewhere as he noted the budget process and the way lawmakers are looking in all areas to cut just to find a few million dollars when this money could be spent on things like education.

“This is a legislative responsibility statewide,” Carroll said. “You cannot escape it as much as you would like to politically, you’ve got to face up to the issue and I am ready to join you as I have been ready to do in the past.”

State Sen.-elect Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, also said this should be a bipartisan issue. Adams said she realizes many of her senate Republican colleagues have voiced opposition to the issue stating that it is not conservative to infringe on the rights of business owners. But she argued that the legislation is about much more than that.

“For anyone who says it is not conservative, I submit to you that saving taxpayer dollars is one of the most conservative things that we can do as members of the General Assembly,” Adams said.

State Rep. Bob DeWeese, R-Louisville, voiced his support for the bill but also added the legislation has passed the House Health and Welfare Committee before but has not received a vote on the House floor. Westrom replied by asking the legislators to call the members of leadership on both sides of the aisle and have this issue brought up for a vote.

There is strong support from the state’s business community to see a statewide smoke free workplace law adopted, which is why the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has been a long supporter of the bill. In a recent survey of Chamber membership, over 92 percent said they favor a statewide smoke free law.

Pension Oversight Committee gets overview of KRS, discusses Chamber audit request

DSC_0001As problems in the Kentucky Retirement System persist, members of the Pension Oversight Committee met Monday to get an update on the system from KRS officials. The group also discussed the possibility of an audit of the system requested by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

KRS Executive Director Bill Thielen told the committee Monday the KERS non-hazardous fund is currently 21 percent funded, a more than two percent drop from June 2013.

As for where the system will stand in coming years, Theilen told committee members the pension plan will hit bottom at 14 percent in the coming years. If all funding requirements are met and KRS meets assumed investment returns over the next 20 years, Theilen said the plan is estimated to be only 32.4 percent funded.

Theilen said the recommendations of the oversight committee were well received by KRS, also noting the actuarial audit suggested by the committee. Theilen added that they have been too busy to have an actuarial audit in past years but said he believes it is a good practice and they plan to have that conducted next year.

In response to those remarks, Public Pension Oversight Board Co-Chair Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro, asked Theilen if he had positive feelings about the request by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce asking state Auditor Adam Edelen to do a comprehensive performance audit of the system. Theilen said the group would comply with whatever decision is made on the request but implied the group does not believe the audit should be done.

“I’d say my thoughts on that are mixed,” Theilen said. “We will cooperate fully with whatever state auditor Adam Edelen decides to do as a result of that request. And I might say that we have over the last several years done exactly that.”

Theilen then pointed to an audit performed by former state auditor Crit Luallen, calling it a “comprehensive governance operations” audit. The KRS official also noted a financial statement audit done by Edelen. However, the Chamber has called for a performance audit of the system that would be far more comprehensive than past audits. The state auditor has the power to compel more information and could offer an independent view of information that heretofore has only been presented to legislators by the Kentucky Retirement System.

Still, Theilen argued that their organization has spent a lot of money and time complying with past reviews and suggested that an audit of investments and below-average performance would not be necessary.

“Kentucky businesses and taxpayers deserve a more comprehensive review of the system than what has been done in the past,” Chamber senior vice president of public affairs Bryan Sunderland said. “The state will not be able to solve its pension problems without thorough review that identifies issues and solutions. The Chamber’s goal in calling for a performance audit is to ensure the financial stability of the system, and only the auditor has the ability to dig deep enough to conduct a proper examination.”

What the federal spending bill means for Kentucky’s business and agricultural community

The passage of the federal spending legislation Saturday will impact Kentucky business and the agriculture community through new funding provisions as well as regulations.

Over the weekend, Congress passed the so-called “CRomnibus” (H.R. 83), a $1.013 trillion federal spending bill that will fund the federal government through September 2015, sending it to the President’s desk to be signed.  The passage of this measure effectively avoids a government shutdown.

What is a Cromnibus (H.R. 83)?

The measure is a combination of a long-term omnibus spending bill and a short-term continuing resolution (CR).  The omnibus portion funds 11 of the 12 appropriations bills, leaving out the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  The CR portion will fund DHS through the end of February 27, 2015.  By design, this will require the U.S. Congress to debate President Obama’s recent action regarding immigration.

Within the spending bill are measures that may be of interest to Kentucky’s business, energy and agricultural industries.

Regulatory:

  • Authorizes a $60 million cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Amends Dodd-Frank- “swaps pushout requirements” for farmers and other commodity producers from having to put down unnecessary collateral to get a loan and/or expand their business.
  • Enhances congressional oversight of EPA’s review of mining permits
  • Exempts livestock producers from onerous greenhouse gas regulations
  • Prevents The Army Corps from implementing the Clean Water Act/Waters of the US in certain agricultural areas (farm ponds and irrigation ditches).
  • Prohibits the Export-Import Bank and Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from blocking coal power generation projects, helping coal exports.
  • Prohibits funding for The Army Corps to change the definition of “fill material,” which could have harmful effects on many U.S. industries

Small Business Administration (SBA):

  • The bill includes $195 million – full funding – for small business loans.
  • Fully funds the small business disaster relief program at $187 million, and increases funding for entrepreneurial programs by $24 million above fiscal year 2014.

Healthcare:

  • No new funding for the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
  • Requires health insurance companies to disclose to consumers whether their ACA plans provide coverage for abortion services.

Energy:

  • Provides $571 million funding for research and development relating to coal, natural gas, oil, and other fossil fuel technologies.
  • Provides $150 million for the Office of Surface Mining, including $69 million in state grants to allow states to implement programs without increasing fees on the mining industry.

Rural Development:

  • Provides a total of $2.4 billion for rural development programs.

Army Corps of Engineers:

  • Increases funding to The Corps and prioritizes funding to be used for navigation projects and U.S. inland waterways (good for U.S. exports).

Conservation Programs:

  • Provides $859 million for Natural Resources Conservation Service to help farmers conserve and protect their land.

Lawmakers highlight legislative needs at Chamber conference

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce held a bipartisan Legislative Preview Conference Monday, bringing business leaders together with top policy makers to discuss what could and should get done in the upcoming 2015 session of the General Assembly.

Consensus on need for heroin bill

The political analysts and media on panels at the Chamber’s Legislative Preview Conference expressed a pessimistic outlook on what will get done in the 2015 session but many pointed to the heroin bill as a specific need for the state that could see movement.

legislative leadersThat was one of the few pieces of legislation which legislative leaders agreed on when listing what needs to get done as well.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, told the conference he believes the following bills needed to be passed and signed:

  • Legislation dealing with the heroin epidemic
  • Telecommunications bill
  • Agreement on dating violence legislation

Thayer went on to argue there are many other issues that need to be taken up which he said the House will not agree to pass.

However, state Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Owensboro, listed many bills that overlapped with Thayer’s priorities. Thompson said the House will be focused on many issues including:

  • Heroin legislation
  • Telecommunications reform
  • Legislation to enable public-private partnerships (P3)
  • Local option sales tax—also known as LIFT

Each lawmaker expressed the need for other issues they feel need to be tackled but said it is unlikely they will get done in the short session.

Pensions

Members of the pension panel told the attendees of the conference they had confidence that the pension fix legislation passed in the 2013 session would help improve the Kentucky Retirement System.

As for the pension problems on the horizon, legislators said funding the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS) had to be tackled next—hopefully within the next session.

In response to remarks from Beau Barnes from KTRS about additional funding being the only way to shore up their system, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said it is part of the solution but will not solve the problem.

“Frankly, Beau could all but hire magicians at this point and they could not return the kinds of rates of return they need to get out of this. This is going to have to be a comprehensive reform,” McDaniel said.

You can see clips of the discussion on pensions in the video below:

Smoke-Free back in 2015

Legislation to make Kentucky a smoke-free state will be back in the DSC_0026legislature in 2015, according to two key sponsors of the bill.

State Sen.-elect Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, and Democratic state Rep. Susan Westrom of Lexington told attendees at the Chamber Legislative Preview Monday that the legislation to eliminate smoking in bars, restaurants and workplaces across the state will again be filed and discussed in the 2015 session.

Smoke-free legislation, an issue the Kentucky Chamber has been a strong advocate of in past years, has been discussed in the previous five sessions of the General Assembly but failed to pass due to property rights concerns.

However, Adams said Monday that most businesses are in favor of the ban because of the ways allowing smoking in their establishments hurts business. Read more coverage of the smoke-free panel on cn|2 Pure Politics.

Education and Workforce

In order to meet future workforce needs, state Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, suggested Monday the state should be focusing on education and technology in order to address the gaps that will exist.

Givens cited a study by Georgetown University which finds the United States will have a shortfall of qualified workers for the 55 million openings that will be available by the year 2020.

givens with his candyGivens stressed the need for computer science to be a particular focus of these future jobs. To demonstrate the lack of qualified workers that will exist in the field by 2020, Givens laid out ten jars and filled just over two and a half of them with candy to illustrate the number of individuals that will graduate with the qualifications for an opening versus the number of positions that will exist.

To solve this issue, Givens suggested to the conference attendees there will not be a simple answer to the problem. However, he said raising awareness and creating room in curriculum for the type of training needed to learn things like computer coding will be necessary steps to addressing the workforce issue.

In a phone interview with the Chamber, Givens also said he will be working to figure out what role government should play in this training—pointing to volunteer programs implemented in Tennessee and Texas to help students.

Givens also said the idea of performance-based funding for post-secondary education could be a piece of the puzzle to solving the issue by focusing state and federal dollars in education with added accountability.

State Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, stressed she would like to work together with Givens on this effort in a collaborative manner.

In her remarks to the Legislative Preview Conference, Flood discussed the importance of early childhood education and expressed a desire to see universal kindergarten passed through the General Assembly.

During their panel discussion at the event Monday, both legislators were vocal about the need for a stronger education system as it continues to be so closely tied to work force issues. Education has been and will remain the top priority of the Chamber to create the workforce needed for growth and prosperity in the Commonwealth.

Chamber calls for comprehensive performance audit of Kentucky Retirement System

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The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has called on state Auditor Adam Edelen to conduct a performance audit of the Kentucky Retirement System to ensure the financial stability of the system.

In a call with members of the press Thursday morning, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Dave Adkisson said the Chamber’s Board of Directors has voted to call for the independent, non-partisan audit.

“We all want the system to be strong and we all agree that we need to honor the retirement promises the state has made to public employees,” Adkisson said on the call. “We are not attacking the system, we simply want to put the system under a magnifying glass and compare its practices to other states.”

Adkisson mentioned the legislative oversight board on the pension system and some of the suggestions that have been forth but added that the Chamber’s request for a comprehensive audit of the system goes further and could hopefully add some momentum to the recommendations of the oversight board.

The Chamber believes a comprehensive performance audit of KRS is needed to examine a number of important factors, including:

  • How the system’s investment performance compares to other state pension funds and the reasons for any underperformance.
  • How the investment fees paid by KRS compare to those in other states and whether those fees are reasonable.
  • The accuracy of the assumptions made by the system’s actuary about current liabilities and the amount of the actuarially required contribution compare to actual experience (including the accuracy of assumptions about: the rate of return on investments; salary increases for public employees; the cost of health insurance; the rate at which employees are retiring; and other factors).

After the public call, Auditor Edelen released a statement thanking the Chamber for their request and concern with the system.

We appreciate and share the Kentucky Chamber’s concerns about the Kentucky Retirement Systems. At least three major reviews of the public pension system have been conducted in recent years, including one by this office. For this proposed exam to add value and bring about real fixes to the system, it will require broad, bipartisan support and additional resources for our office to conduct the highly-technical work,” Edelen said in the statement. “We have begun discussing the matter with stakeholders. No final decision has been made at this time.”

Adkisson said it is important that the Chamber’s request not become a “political football,” adding that the Chamber has reached out to all three current gubernatorial candidates to discuss the call for an examination as the audit would likely take months to do.

Kentucky Chamber enhances communications

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce will enhance its outreach and coverage of state policy issues this legislative session by delivering timely updates from Frankfort to the business community on the Chamber’s blog.

With the goal of closely monitoring the progress and facts of business-related legislation and delivering the behind-the-scene knowledge of state government, this platform will serve as a source of the news beginning with the 2015 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

The Chamber has hired Jacqueline Pitts, a reporter who has covered the Kentucky legislature and politics as producer at cn|2 Pure Politics, to serve as Communications Manager. Pitts will be responsible for delivering up-to-date information about legislative and other state policy decisions being made in Frankfort that affect the business community.

Through a combination of explanatory interviews, videos, and various written media, we will boil down the facts about key issues and put them at your fingertips.

To stay in the loop, visit kychamberblog.com to sign up to receive email alerts when news is posted. You can also follow the Chamber on Twitter at @kychamber.

Kentucky Chamber voices opposition to EPA rule

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce formally submitted comments today regarding the proposed federal 111(d) rule from the Environmental Protection Agency. Expressing concerns on behalf of the more than 90,000 business locations throughout Kentucky, the Chamber noted a number of legal concerns as well as concerns with the timing and impacts on reliable and affordable energy needed to power the economy.

“These proposed rules are the most significant and far reaching rules proposed. There will be significant impacts to businesses of all sizes and to every Kentucky citizen,” said Bryan Sunderland, senior vice president of public affairs for the Chamber. “The rules are not reasonably attainable and will lead to more uncertainty in the energy market and a negative impact on jobs in Kentucky.”

In its comments, the Chamber offered its support for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s comments which also noted the unreasonable time frame and negative implications on jobs in Kentucky. To read the full comments submitted to EPA click here.

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