By Sen. Ralph Alvarado
The commonwealth of Kentucky celebrated its 229th birthday on Monday, June 1. It also marked the first official day of the 2021 Interim of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The interim serves as a period for lawmakers to receive updates on implemented legislation, stay informed on various issues facing the Commonwealth, and prepare for the 2022 Regular Session, which begins next January. Here in Kentucky, we are considered a “part-time legislature,” but work for my colleagues and me is year-round.
Committee meetings held during week 1 of the Interim included the Interim Joint Committees (IJC) on Education, Transportation, Appropriations, and Revenue—as well as various budget review subcommittees—Natural Resources and Energy, and Judiciary. The first meeting of the IJC on Health, Welfare, and Family Services, on which I serve as co-chairman, is scheduled for Wednesday, June 16, at 1:00 p.m. Initial meetings of the IJC on Local Government and State Government, on which I serve as a member, will be held on Tuesday, June 15, at 10:00 a.m. and 1 p.m., respectively. Finally, the first meeting of the IJC on Banking and Insurance that I also serve as a member of is scheduled for Tuesday, August 3 at 11:00 a.m. Meeting times are always subject to change, but you can find the updated Interim calendar by vising legislature.ky.gov.
COVID-19, its various impacts, and state and legislative responses to it over the last year and a half continue to demand state government’s attention. Of most importance, outside of direct health impact to our citizens, is how students and Kentucky’s youth have been affected during the pandemic.
During Monday’s meeting of the IJC on Education, representatives from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and local school districts reported student participation, engagement, and intervention concerns during the pandemic. KDE data indicated some of the results of the reliance on virtual learning as schools were closed to in-person learning. Twenty-nine counties were randomly selected, as were two days and class periods, to get a snapshot of student participation. The results indicated that over 11 percent of students across elementary, middle, and high schools were not participating. Superintendents from Shelby County and Fayette County commended the efforts of our teachers, who went above and beyond to mitigate the struggles of virtual learning. Districts did their best to minimize the adverse impacts of the pandemic by connecting with families when and where they were, even if that meant connecting on a Friday night, Saturday morning, or whenever working parents might be available. One superintendent reported that a teacher went as far as to buy groceries for a family who was quarantined with COVID-19. A couple of things are clear from the testimonies given at the Education Committee meeting. 1. In-person face-to-face learning is most beneficial for students, and 2. Teachers, parents, school staff, and educational leaders stepped up in a big way to make the most out of a bad situation. Information on learning gaps is expected to become available around September and October as assessment scores are reported.
During a meeting of the IJC on Transportation, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) provided an update on the implementation of REAL ID. They also discussed the latest on expanding regional offices and transportation-related Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. If you recall, I provided information related to REAL ID and regional offices in a recent column published in your local paper. I encourage you to review that column for details.
Testimony included updates on regional offices’ absorption of circuit court clerk licensing responsibilities. About ten counties continue to transition to regional offices each month, and all 120 counties’ licensing responsibilities will make the transition by June 30, 2022. KYTC is working to make the transition as smooth and convenient as possible by offering the renewal of licensing (with no substantive changes like name or address) online and bringing mobile/pop-up licensing offices to counties during the year.
During the meeting on Appropriations and Revenue (A&R), State Budget Director John Hicks and the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA) provided an update on broadband deployment. Through House bills 320 and 382, the Kentucky General Assembly established a program framework and allocated $250 million to expand internet access to unserved residents and underserved areas of our state. An additional $50 million was included for securing economic development opportunities for commercial and industrial customers. It was reported that Stage 1 of the project is expected to be released this month or next. Stage 1 includes KIA releasing a notice of intent to apply and determining the eligible unserved areas map. To help map the last mile of broadband deployment, an internet speed test website has been established. You are encouraged to visit educationcabinet.ky.gov/Initiatives/Pages/KBI.aspx, where you can take the speed test to help the state better determine the areas most in need of internet access or improvement.
Additionally, the A&R Committee received a visit from Sunrise Children’s Services. This organization has cared for children since 1869. It has contracted with the state since the 1970s, helping care for thousands of Kentucky kids in need. It is a faith-based organization that the state had long respected the religious convictions of, until recently when the contract language was changed unexpectedly. The language change is not compatible with the language that has allowed Sunrise to partner with the state for a half-century, spanning multiple administrations, both Republican and Democratic. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services is attempting to require Sunrise to comply with a federal rule that was repealed in 2019. Five of the state’s constitutional officers have sided with Sunrise. They call for the administration to renew the contract and respect Sunrise’s First Amendment rights and the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Failure to continue the precedent of partnership puts children at risk unnecessarily. In the fiscal years 2020 and 2021 alone, Sunrise has served 1,636 Kentucky children and has assisted in finding loving homes for 588 of them.
The IJC on Judiciary meeting included a visit from Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton, who provided an update on the Judicial Branch. The Judicial Branch is utilizing legislative appropriations to make technology upgrades that will benefit citizens across the Bluegrass. One such upgrade includes a significantly increased level of service to the public by creating a portal for self-representing litigates, allowing them to interact with the court and submit necessary documents. Other upgrade initiatives include implementing software to redact certain personally identifying information in electronic court records and establish self-service kiosks through the state. The public would allow individuals who owe money to the court to pay court costs, fines, and more.
A meeting of the IJC on Natural Resources and Energy focused on recent concerns related to the cybersecurity of electrical utility infrastructure. Guests of the committee stressed the importance of protecting our electrical utility infrastructure from attacks and efforts being made to protect it. A story related to the topic was the recent cyber-attack on the Colonial Pipeline that forced operators to shut it down for several days, which tapped out service stations in some parts of the country. The news alone led to a degree of public hysteria in other areas where supply would not have even been impacted.
For more information on legislative meetings held during week 1 of the interim, visit legislature.ky.gov. You can find archived footage of meetings as well as live meeting broadcasts at ket.org/legislature or by visiting the Legislative Research Commission’s YouTube channel.
Should you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to call me about this issue or any other public policy issue toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me at Ralph.Alvarado@LRC.ky.gov. It is an honor to represent District 28. Be safe. God bless.
Senator Ralph Alvarado (R-Winchester) represents the 28th State Senate District, including Clark and Montgomery counties and the eastern portion of Fayette County. He serves as co-chairman of the Interim Joint Committee on Health, Welfare, and Family Services, and is a member of the Interim Joint Committees on Banking and Insurance; Local Government, and State Government. Sen. Alvarado also serves as a liaison member of the Budget Review Subcommittee on Human Resources. Additionally, he serves as a member of the Medicaid Oversight and Advisory Statutory Committee, the Severe Mental Illness Task Force, and the Unemployment Insurance Reform Task Force.