Colleges, coal mines and landfills: Legislature nears finish

By Bruce Schreiner and Adam Beam - Associated Press

FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky’s public universities would be competing against one another for more than basketball and football victories under legislation headed to Gov. Matt Bevin. They’ll be vying for state funding.

The House gave final approval Tuesday to a measure that would create a performance-based formula for distributing state funds to public universities and colleges. It came amid a flurry of action on both sides of Kentucky’s Capitol on the next-to-last day before lawmakers take an extended break so the state’s Republican governor can sign or veto legislation.

Lawmakers agreed to loosen inspection requirements for underground coal mines. They voted to increase the flow of money into political campaigns. They backed a bill to make it easier for terminally ill patients to obtain experimental treatments.

And in one of the closest votes of the day, the Senate decided that churches would not be exempt from posting up to a $250,000 bond to appeal a zoning decision. Instead, the Senate said the exemption would apply to anyone opposing the creation, expansion or operation of a landfill.

Meanwhile, lawmakers had not yet answered one of the biggest questions of this legislative session: whether to allow charter schools for the first time in Kentucky. The bill has passed the House but continued to sit idle in the Senate on Tuesday while opponents held a news conference warning the bill would drain funding from traditional public schools. But the Senate Education Committee was set to meet Wednesday, when the bill is expected to be considered.

Another controversial bill that would have effectively ended Jefferson County’s decades-long busing system to integrate its public schools appeared to die in the Senate on Tuesday. Senate Republican Caucus chairman Dan Seum said lawmakers ran out of time to pass the bill, but vowed to keep it alive for next year by holding hearings on it over the summer.

The bills highlighted the final days of the first legislative session in memory where Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. Lawmakers are scheduled to meet again Wednesday before taking a nearly two-week break. Lawmakers return to Frankfort for the final two days of March to wrap up the session.

Bevin is likely to sign the bill pitting Kentucky’s public colleges and universities against each other in a competition for state funding. Under Senate Bill 153 , schools would be rewarded for graduating low-income students and awarding more degrees in science, technology, engineering and math.

The colleges will compete for a total of $42 million in the fall. But the next year, all of the state’s more than $1 billion in higher education funding would be up for grabs. The bill contains language that would limit financial losses for colleges and universities until 2021.

“We need to … be focused on outcomes and performance,” Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green, said during a lengthy debate. “That’s where we’re heading with this. It’s a starting point.”

House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins warned that lawmakers were rushing into fundamental changes in higher education funding that could hurt some schools.

“My concern is that over a period of time, that there’s going to be unintended consequences where we have winners and we have losers,” said Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.

The House also sent to Bevin a measure to double how much money people can donate to political campaigns. The bill would raise the maximum individual campaign contribution to $2,000 from $1,000. It also would boost the amount that can be donated to state executive committees and caucus campaign committees — in effect the Republican and Democratic parties.

“The people don’t want more money in politics,” Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles, said in opposing Senate Bill 75. “They don’t want more negative ads on TV. They don’t want more negative ads on the radio. And they don’t want to see more negative ads in their mailboxes.”

Rep. Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, countered that the higher individual contribution limits would give people a greater stake in the political process.

“Limiting how much a regular person can give is limiting their voice in getting a fellow church member or community member or neighbor here to be their voice,” he said.

The House also voted 87-7 to approve a “right to try” measure that would make it easier for terminally ill patients to get access to drugs that have completed the first phase of clinical trials but have not yet been approved for general use.

“Now some who have terminal illnesses, with no hope for life, will be given a chance. I think they deserve that chance,” said Sen. C.B. Embry Jr., R-Morgantown, the bill’s lead sponsor.

In the Senate, the most contentious vote was over allowing judges to set bonds of up to $250,000 in zoning cases. The House voted to exempt churches from posting the bonds, but the Senate removed it. Instead, they said Kentuckians challenging landfills should not be forced to post a bond in order to appeal a judge’s decision.

Supporters said it would cut down on the number of frivolous lawsuits that often impede economic development. But opponents, including Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas, said it would prevent people from defending their property values against unwanted development.

By Bruce Schreiner and Adam Beam

Associated Press

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