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State’s new fiscal year gets off to good start

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT – Kentucky’s new fiscal year has gotten off to a fairly good start.

State budget director Jane Driskell said Monday the state’s General Fund receipts for July, the first month of fiscal year 2016, rose 4 percent compared to July 2014 receipts.

Receipts in July for the General Fund, which pays for most state programs, were $738.8 million.

The official revenue estimate for this fiscal year calls for revenue to rise 1.0 percent compared to last fiscal year’s actual receipts.

Based on July’s results, General Fund revenues need to increase 0.8 percent for the remainder of the fiscal year to meet the official estimate.

Driskell said, “We are very pleased that the first month of the fiscal year maintained the same momentum that produced $165 million in unbudgeted revenues in fiscal year 2015.

“This month’s sales and use tax collections grew at a higher than expected rate and helped offset declines in other accounts.

“Nevertheless, the sales tax acts as a barometer of current economic conditions, such as consumer sentiment, disposable income, and future prospects of gainful employment. This is a continued sign that the underlying economy is moving in a positive direction.”

Among the major accounts, individual income tax receipts rose 1.1 percent, sales tax revenues grew 8.6 percent, corporation income tax collections rose 48.2 percent, cigarette tax collections jumped 10.6 percent and lottery revenues increased 3 percent.

On the down side, property tax receipts fell 16.8 percent and coal severance tax revenues declined 12.2 percent.

Driskell also announced that Road Fund revenues for July totaled $127.6 million, an increase of 1.8 percent compared to last July.

She noted that the modest growth in receipts was expected.

“A timing issue helped bump up motor vehicle usage tax receipts while motor fuels tax collections declined at the pace we expected,” she said.

The official Road Fund revenue estimate for this new fiscal year calls for revenue to increase 2.1 percent compared to last year’s actual receipts.

Based on the first month’s receipts, revenues must increase 2.1 percent for the rest of the fiscal year to meet budgeted levels.

Among the major Road Fund categories, motor fuels tax receipts fell 13.2 percent, motor vehicle usage tax increased 25.3 percent and license and privilege taxes grew 11.2 percent

The Consensus Forecasting Group, a panel of independent economists, will meet later this month to begin establishing revenue estimates for the next two-year budget that will be approved in the 2016 General Assembly.

2 GOP lawmakers sponsor bill to exempt county clerks, ministers from liability for following religious beliefs on same-sex marriage

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT — Two Republican state representatives said Wednesday they are sponsoring legislation that would exempt county clerks from civil or criminal liability if they refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on religious objections.

Reps. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, and David Meade, R-Stanford, said in a news release that their legislation also would protect ministers who don’t want to perform such marriages.

Earlier this month, state Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, pre-filed a bill that would prohibit the state from requiring religious organizations or leaders to perform same-sex ceremonies. That bill would also protect such organizations and leaders from being sued for refusing to marry same-sex couples.

“There have been numerous media reports about county clerks who have expressed real concerns about how issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples violates their religious beliefs and convictions,” Lee said Wednesday.

“There are reports of as many as half of all county clerks who want a legislative solution to this issue. There is no doubt many others who are afraid to speak out due to the threat of civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution.”

The ACLU of Kentucky has filed a lawsuit against Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court.

Casey County Clerk Casey Davis also has refused to issue licenses on religious objections.

“If we truly believe in the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, then shouldn’t our clergy, as well as our county clerks, be entitled to this added protection?” Meade asked.

The bill was pre-filed for consideration in the 2016 legislative session, which starts in January.

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, said legislation dealing with ministers is not necessary because the Supreme Court ruling had no impact on ministers who decide not to marry same-sex partners.

He said the group opposes any attempt to exempt county clerks from liability for not issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

“Why stop there?” Hartman said. “I can think of many amendments to add to allow our officials not to the do the jobs they were elected to do.”

Lawmakers review salary hike for transportation engineers

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT –The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is going in the right direction in raising salaries of hundreds of engineers to curb high turnover and costly contracts for private engineers, several state lawmakers said Tuesday.

But concerns also were raised about state pay to other professionals and skilled workers who are leaving state government to find better-paying jobs in the private sector.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said he was not begrudging better pay for transportation engineers but said he was concerned about pay for correctional officers, social workers, prosecutors, public defenders and teachers.

“If we are going to start handing out increases in pay, there are others to look at, too. I’m frustrated,” said Westerfield, who is running this year for attorney general against Democrat Andy Beshear of Louisville.

Westerfield said he saw in news reports that some of the engineers receiving raises were “already making six figures.”

The average annual salary for engineers before the increase ranged from $109,764 for transportation engineer directors to $30,137 for transportation engineer technologists I.

Senate Transportation Chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, noted that the Road Fund, which pays salaries in the Transportation Cabinet, is separate from the General Fund, which pays salaries of most state workers.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Tuesday that about 550 engineers in the Transportation cabinet received raises on June 16 averaging 20 percent to follow an order from Kentucky’s 2014 General Assembly for the state to make the salaries more competitive with similar jobs in surrounding states and private businesses.

The pay hike will cost about $7.8 million a year. The money is expected to come from savings in personal-service contracts used to hire outside engineers.

Members of the state legislature’s Transportation Committee received information about the pay hike Tuesday from human resource officials Mary Elizabeth Bailey in the Personnel Cabinet and Carol Beth Martin in the Transportation Cabinet.

Much of the reaction from the lawmakers was favorable.

Harris said the money for the pay hike is “well spent” compared to the escalating cost of contracts for outside engineers. The cabinet last year spent $150.7 million for professional engineering service contracts, compared to $101.7 million in 2004.

Rep. Russ Meyer, D-Nicholasville, said the salary jump is needed.

Two Republican senators –Albert Robinson of London and Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon – asked the human resources officials to determine how much retirement benefits will cost with the salary increases.

Higdon also said the cabinet should look at raising the number of weekly hours worked by the engineers from 37.5 to 40 to boost their pay.

The cabinet is considering that change, said spokesman Chuck Wolfe.

It would cost an additional $5.6 million but would also affect about 500 engineer technologists who did not get the raises last month, he said.

Acting LRC director Seiler to retire July 31, will not seek permanent job

By Jack Brammer
FRANKFORT – Marcia Seiler, acting director of the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, announced Tuesday she has decided to retire at the end of July and not seek the job of permanent director.
Seiler, of Louisville, became acting director in October 2013. She had been director of the legislature’s Office of Education Accountability. She has been working from home in recent weeks, recuperating from bone fractures sustained in a bicycle accident.
Seiler replaced Bobby Sherman, who resigned from the post in September 2013 after he said his office investigated two female staffers’ complaints of sexual harassment by a Western Kentucky lawmaker.
Those complaints and that of another staffer have been settled in a mediation session. Details of the settlement have not yet been made public.
A search panel for a full-time director hopes to fill the non-partisan position of LRC director on Oct. 1, three months before the 2016 General Assembly begins. The job pays from $120,000 to $140, 000 a year and includes state benefits.

Resolution reached in mediation of legislative sexual harassment claims

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT – A resolution has been reached in the mediation of claims involving sexual harassment, retaliation and other misconduct against state lawmakers.

Leslie Vose, attorney for the Legislative Research Commission, and Thomas Clay, attorney for three women who made the claims, confirmed the resolution Tuesday morning but declined to provide any details of it.

Vose, of Lexington, said, “I can say the mediation was successful to all parties involved,” but said legislative leaders now will have to sign off on it.

Neither House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, nor Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, had any immediate comment.

John Cox, a spokesman for Stivers, said details of the resolution will not be immediately released. He did not elaborate.

Clay, of Louisville, said the parties Monday night “reached a mutually satisfactory resolution.”

The closed mediation started Monday in the Lexington law office of Steve Barker.

Clay also said “all parties involved” should be pleased and that the resolution will take care of all lawsuits in the cases.

The mediation addressed two cases, both brought in October of 2013.

One involved sexual harassment claims by legislative staffers Yolanda Costner and Cassaundra Cooper against former state Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis. Arnold has denied any wrongdoing.

The two women also sued the Legislative Research Commission, and earlier this year added Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, as a defendant after Bell fired Costner from her job in the House majority whip’s office soon after he was elected whip.

The second case involved allegations by legislative staffer Nicole Cusic that she was moved to an inferior job after she complained that Rep. Will Coursey, D-Symsonia, had sexually harassed female legislative staffers.

Coursey has denied the charge and sued Cusic for defamation. Cusic also listed the LRC and former LRC director Bobby Sherman as defendants in her case.

Beshear creates special panel to study teachers’ retirement funding; Hoover criticizes it

By Jack Brammer

FRANKFORT – Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order Tuesday to create a 23-member group to address the state’s financially strapped Teachers’ Retirement System.

Beshear named David Karem, a former Democratic state senator from Louisville and a former chairman of the state Board of Education, to chair the panel and to submit a report to him by or on Dec. 1.

Beshear leaves office in early December and could turn over any recommendations to the 2016 General Assembly.

The creation of the special panel drew applause from the top two legislative leaders – House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester – but criticism from House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown.

Hoover said he was “extremely disappointed.”
“Gov. Beshear had a real opportunity to create an independent, non-partisan panel to give a thorough review of KTRS in an effort to make substantive recommendations to solidify the system,” said Hoover in an email.

“Instead the governor chose to fill this task force with self-serving special interest groups that have been part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

John Schaff named new head of Legislative Ethics Commission


FRANKFORT — John Schaaf, who has been legal counsel for the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission since 2004, will become its news executive director Aug. 1.

Schaaf will replace Anthony Wilhoit, who is retiring.

The bipartisan commission, made up of private citizens, selected Schaaf from 38 applications from all over the country, commission chairman George Troutman of Louisville said in a release.

In 1992, Schaaf worked with the Task Force on Governmental Ethics to draft the legislation which created the Legislative Ethics Commission.

Before joining the commission as its legal counsel, Schaaf was general counsel for the Legislative Research Commission for 16 years. He and his wife have three sons and lives in Scott County.

Wilhoit has led the commission staff since 1997. He took the job shortly after he retired as chief judge of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. He served on the court for 21 years.

Prior to that, Wilhoit was the state’s first public advocate, and served as Woodford County attorney and police judge.

In 2012, Wilhoit received the COGEL Award, the highest honor given by the international organization of public and private organizations working in the fields of ethics, campaign finance, elections and open records.

In addition to Troutman, other members of the Ethics Commission are vice chair Pat Freibert of Lexington, former Sen. Charlie Borders of Grayson, Deborah Jo Durr of Richwood, Bob Fulkerson of Louisville, attorney Elmer George of Lebanon, retired Judge Paul Gudgel of Lexington, Henry L. Stephens, Jr. of Union and former Sen. Ken Winters of Murray.
–Jack Brammer

KY Sen. Chris Girdler of Somerset will not seek re-election next year


FRANKFORT — State Sen. Chris Girdler, R-Somerset, announced Thursday he will not seek re-election to the Kentucky Senate next year.

Girdler, a former aide and district director for Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, said in a statement that after more than “a year of prayerful consideration and conversations with my wife and close friends, I have confidently come to the decision that I will not be seeking re-election in 2016.”

Girdler, who won an election in 2012 to represent the 15th Senate District that includes Pulaski, Lincoln and Boyle counties, said he has a deep passion for public service but his wife, Courtney, and he are expecting their second daughter soon “and my passion for public service pales in comparison to the love and passion I have for my family and my faith.”

Girdler noted that he suggested many times on the campaign trail in 2012 that he did not plan on serving in the Senate for a long time.

“I feel I made that abundantly clear when I opted out of the legislative retirement plan upon being sworn in to prove that I was not in the General Assembly for the perks and privileges, but there to do the people’s business, and that is exactly what I have done,” he said.

KY House Democratic leaders talk road projects with Rogers, Paul and Boehner

Four Kentucky Democratic House leaders met Wednesday in Washington with U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, to discuss road projects in the state. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, attended the meeting with Rogers.

The discussions involved Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s efforts to extend the Mountain Parkway in Eastern Kentucky from Prestonsburg to Beckley, W.Va., and widening the Hal Rogers Parkway in south-central Kentucky, bringing it up to interstate standards and extending it southeast to Tennessee.

The combined projects would become part of the Interstate 66 project that Eastern Kentucky leaders and Rogers have long championed.

“These meetings went exactly as we had hoped and show that the support is growing in our nation’s capitol,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, in a release.

“They realize, as we do, that projects like these can open up the region in a way no other can. Eastern Kentucky needs a major interstate route to the east and south, and these plans are the best way to do that.”

Kentucky House members with Stumbo were House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook, House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards of Bowling Green and House Majority Whip Johnny Bell of Glasgow.

They arranged the meetings while in Washington for the National Conference of State Legislature’s Symposium for Legislative Leaders.

Stumbo has asked the state Transportation Cabinet to look at how the project from Prestonsburg to Beckley, W.Va., could be accomplished.

He supports using up to $1 billion of federal abandoned mine land funds.

“Rather than sitting idle, these funds can be used to improve the coal region’s infrastructure and economic future,” he said.

The Kentucky House leaders support expanding the project’s scope to include the Hal Rogers Parkway and tying it together under the I-66 umbrella.

“I want to thank Rep. Rogers, Sen. Paul and House Speaker Boehner for meeting with us and offering their suggestions,” Stumbo said. “These billion-dollar projects can’t be built overnight, but the sooner we can lay the groundwork and planning, the sooner we can begin turning this dream into reality.”

–Jack Brammer

Auditor Edelen to hold statewide meetings on untested rape kits


FRANKFORT – State Auditor Adam Edelen and officials with the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs will hold 14 meetings across the state this summer to talk about the state’s problem with untested rape kits.

Edelen, a Democrat who is seeking re-election this year, said the meetings are part of his office’s efforts to conduct a statewide count of untested sexual-assault kits.

He also plans to make recommendations to the state legislature to reform how evidence in cases of sexual violence is handled.

The statewide count was prompted by legislation sponsored this year by Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville.

Senate Joint Resolution 20 calls on Edelen to count the number of untested sexual-assault evidence kits in the possession of law enforcement. Kentucky State Police officials have said there might be as many as 2,000 to 5,000 untested kits sitting on shelves in police stations and prosecutors’ offices across the state.

Edelen said the kits contain biological evidence collected from assault victims during investigations and might contain DNA from assailants who can be identified by comparisons with the national DNA database.

“These meetings are an important part of our examination of the complex issues surrounding untested rape kits,” Edelen said in a release. “I hope to hear from law enforcement, prosecutors, survivors and others as we begin working toward recommending reforms to the system.”

Edelen said he wants to talk to survivors, victims’ advocates, nurses, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and others who are involved in sexual assault investigations and gather testimony about the issues and challenges they face.

He said his office is focused on issues such as how kits are logged, tracked and stored, how decisions to test kits are made, whether victims are notified of the status of their kits and whether law enforcement have sufficient policies, procedures and training to handle kits and deal with victims.

Survivors, victims’ advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors and others who are involved in sexual assault investigations are invited to attend the meetings to voice their concerns and experiences.

Persons who would prefer to share privately their concerns with the auditor’s office may request time in advance of the meetings to do so, Edelen said.

Also, individuals may share their stories, concerns and opinions via email at Confidentiality may be requested.

Here is the schedule of the meetings:

June 23
2 p.m. CST
New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services, 1716 Scherm Rd., Owensboro

June 26
10 a.m. CST
Purchase Area Sexual Assault and Child Advocacy Center, 1605 North Friendship Road, Paducah

June 30
10 a.m. EST
Women’s Crisis Center, 3580 Hargrave Drive, Hebron

July 1
11 a.m. EST
Silverleaf Sexual Trauma Recovery Services, 751 South Provident Way, Elizabethtown

July 7
10 a.m. EST
Cumberland River Behavioral Health, 1203 American Greeting Road, Corbin

July 7
2 p.m. EST
Adanta Sexual Assault Resource Center, 130 Southern School Road, Somerset

July 8
1 p.m. EST
Center for Women & Families, 927 S. 2nd Street, Louisville

July 9
10 a.m. CST
Economic Justice Institute, 2109 Old Louisville Road, Bowling Green

July 9
2 p.m. CST
Hopkinsville Municipal Center, 715 S. Virginia Street, Hopkinsville

July 13
10 a.m. EST
145 Constitution Street, Lexington

July 14
11 a.m. EST
Mountain Comprehensive Care Center’s Healing Program for Survivors of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, 104 S. Front Street, Prestonsburg

July 14
2 p.m. EST
The Rising Center, 637 Morton Blvd., Hazard

July 21
10 am EST
Mason County Health Department, 120 West Third Street, Maysville

July 21
2 p.m. EST
Park Place, 1701 Central Avenue, Ashland

–Jack Brammer