Summer in Kentucky has been in keeping with tradition – hot and hotter. Despite the sweltering temperatures, I hope you are enjoying all the wonders of summertime in the commonwealth.
As I have been making the most of the season, I have tried to meet with many of you as I travel around the district and the state. Talking with you one-on-one gives me a broader insight into your concerns for you, your family and your neighbors and your dreams for our state as a whole. Along with talking with many of you, I have also been getting insight into issues we may address during the 2017 Legislative Session at our interim joint committee meetings. A summary of some of those meetings in July and topics we have covered follows below:
The Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education discussed the academic pursuits of students attending Kentucky’s colleges and universities. The Council of Postsecondary Education noted that when looking at the state’s two-year and four-year institutions from 2005 − 2014, the top five fields of study producing degrees and credentials were: (1) Trades, (2) Health, (3) STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), (4) Arts and Humanities, and (5) Social and Behavioral Sciences.
The subcommittee also received a report on the amount of student debt acquired by students attending postsecondary institutions in the commonwealth. In 2014, Kentucky college students had the 32nd lowest amount of student debt among all states, with an average baccalaureate debt of $25, 939. The debt average is expected to be noticeably reduced by two new programs in Kentucky. The Dual Credit Scholarship Program will allow high school students to take two courses per year or up to nine credit hours over a lifetime at a cost of only one-third of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s (KCTCS) in-state hourly tuition rate (i.e. approximately $52 per college hour). In 2015, only 26% of high school graduates in Kentucky finished school with dual college credit (Iowa leads the country with 56% of their high school graduates having dual credit upon graduation). The Kentucky Work Ready Scholarship Program, which will go into effect in July 2017, will assist Kentucky students primarily through federal and state grants to attend their first two years of college debt-free.
The Interim Joint Committee on Education heard from Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Secretary Hal Heiner, who emphasized that of employers surveyed their number one need is for employees to possess “soft skills.” Soft skills include such attributes as attendance, drug-free, dress, teamwork, and communication. Employers say that too many prospective employees lack these necessary attributes. Secretary Heiner also noted that the workforce participation rate in Kentucky is too low. The workforce participation rate is defined as the number of able-bodied citizens between the ages of 21-65 who are able to work. In 2015, Kentucky ranked 46th in the nation among all states in workforce participation rate. In actual numbers, this means there are currently 130,000 able-bodied Kentuckians who for one reason or another choose not to work.
Health and Welfare
The Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare discussed Benefind, a one-stop shop program designed to assist applicants seeking benefits such as food stamps, medical cards, and disability payments. When Benefind initially rolled out on February 29 of this year, there were some problems with the system. For instance, there was an erroneous dismissal of recipients from benefit eligibility. Some of the reasons for this and other problems were that the trainers themselves were not familiar with the Benefind system and the pilot projects used as part of the training were insufficient.
However, the focus of the Health and Welfare Committee meeting was on KyNect, Kentucky’s nationally renowned health care exchange. Governor Bevin has indicated that he intends to dismantle KyNect by the end of this year. KyNect has two components: (1) a traditional health insurance option for those residents who are unable or unwilling to obtain health insurance through their employment, and (2) health insurance provided for those in poverty who otherwise cannot afford such insurance. This second component has commonly been called Medicaid Expansion.
Governor Bevin has proposed retaining Expanded Medicaid, but substantially revising this health care program through a Section 1115 waiver application requiring approval by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In particular, Governor Bevin is asking that all non-disabled adults pay a premium to obtain insurance based upon their income in relation to the federal poverty level (note: the federal poverty level for a single individual in Kentucky is $11,750.). Individuals who fail to make their premium payments will lose their health care coverage for six months and can only re-enroll after six months by paying two months of missed premiums plus an additional month’s premium to re-start. In addition, Governor Bevin’s waiver requests eliminates dental and vision coverage for the Expanded Medicaid population. This population will only be able to receive these generally covered benefits through participation in a separate program. Furthermore, the waiver request adds a community engagement condition for recipients; that is, individuals will be required to work up to 20 hours per week in some undescribed service activity. This community service condition comes on top of the individual’s job requirements plus any family responsibilities and duties. Presently, 485,000 Kentuckians are receiving health care coverage under the Medicaid Expansion component of KyNect. Witnesses testifying before the Health and Welfare Committee, such as the Foundation for A Healthy Kentucky, expressed concern that Governor Bevin’s waiver application, if approved, could result in a loss of health care access to many Kentucky residents. Pregnant women are the sole class excluded from the category of non-disabled adults.
Economic Development, Labor and Tourism
The Interim Joint Committee on Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism met in Bowling Green at the National Corvette Museum, which opened in September 1994. Seated on a 55-acre campus, the museum attracts over 220,000 visitors annually, making it the fourth most popular auto museum in the world. A motorsports park with two road courses was added to the museum in September 2014.
As some of you may recall, the museum experienced a sinkhole on its location in February 2014 that resulted in major damage to eight corvettes. Fortunately, there were no human injuries. The museum today has fully recovered from the damage to its facilities. The National Corvette Museum estimates that it yields a $50 million economic impact statewide.
The General Motors Assembly Plant in Bowling Green manufactures the Corvette. The plant has approximately 1 million square feet and is located on 212 acres. With just over 1,000 employees, the plant operates one shift Monday through Friday to manufacture four different models of the Corvette. Approximately 65,000 visitors pass through the plant annually. In all, the Corvette Plant generates $3.5 billion dollars in economic impact to the Commonwealth each year.
I hope you — like myself – are enjoying the dog days of summer despite the heat. We are fortunate to live in a state and in a country where we can weatherize our homes and workplaces to cool down in summer and heat up in the winter. However, I would like to remind you, if you know someone whose health is at risk because of the heat and his or her inability to cool his or her home, contact the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette County at 859-233-4600. The agency will loan air conditioners to families and individuals whose health are threatened by the high heat and humidity as verified by their doctors.
As always, thank you for your continued support. Your input is vital to my work in Frankfort. If I can be of assistance to you or you wish to bring an issue to my attention, please do not hesitate to email me.
Wishing you and your family all the best,
Reginald L. Thomas