Friday, January 23, 2015

Here's What NKY Lawmakers Plan to Accomplish This Session

Northern Kentucky's state legislators convened for a panel discussion Thursday evening./Provided

Northern Kentucky’s representatives in Frankfort came together Thursday night to explore the most pressing issues facing our region, in a panel discussion that looked ahead to how those issues will be addressed during the 2015 session of the General Assembly.



The panel, which consisted of State Senators Wil Schroder and Chris McDaniel and Representatives Dennis Keene and Diane St. Onge, spoke on topics running the gamut from the region’s current struggle with the heroin epidemic to infrastructure and the Brent Spence Bridge to a statewide smoking ban to historic preservation, among others. The discussion was moderated by Michael Monks, editor-in-chief and publisher of Northern Kentucky-based media outlet The River City News and was hosted by Northern Kentucky Forum.

The panelists spoke before a standing room only crowd./Provided

Thursday’s panel demonstrated immediately that, while the heroin epidemic has already been established as "priority number one" for Northern Kentucky legislators, it is not the only nor the most contentious concern facing the region.

But even more emphatically, the legislators repeatedly appeals to the audience throughout the evening to participate in their government.

Brent Spence Bridge

The issue Monks spent the most time probing might be the most disputed: the Brent Spence Bridge. The general consensus among the panelists was that the bridge needs to be addressed, but no one’s quite sure how, and, despite Monks's attempt to get candidates to come down “yes or no” on whether or not the bridge needs to be addressed now, the panelists responses, for the most part, revealed how puzzled the Commonwealth’s legislators remain on the issue.

Keene was probably able to sum up his perspective on the issue most succinctly, one which the other panelists ultimately echoed as central to the discussion, when he asked who should really pay for this project. “I’m going to put my faith in Senator McConnell to solve this problem,” he said.

St. Onge agreed, saying, “I’d like to see what happens under the new Senate leadership,” referring to McConnell’s recent step into the Senate majority seat. “If Mr. McConnell can’t solve this problem, no one can,” she charged.

McDaniel, who is currently campaigning for Lieutenant Governor and has recently called for a “reset” on the entire Brent Spence debate, went on to elaborate on his belief that Northern Kentucky currently suffers from a disadvantage from all directions. Pointing to Ohio’s stake in the project, he asked, “Why shouldn’t Ohio pay their share?” Then, he put Frankfort to task, saying, “This is just one more way we’re acquiescing to not investing in Northern Kentucky’s infrastructure."

Ultimately, for McDaniel, the Brent Spence is Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati’s role in a much bigger problem: “We are a microcosm of a conversation being had all across the nation,” he said.

As for tolls posing a possible solution, legislators remained cautious. St. Onge said, “It’s not, ‘Does something need to be done.’ But I don’t want to say (tolls) are the only solution."

Heroin

Even though the majority of Monks’s questions regarded the disputed Brent Spence, the panelists had the most to say about the  heroin epidemic currently facing the region, and that might have something to do with just how deadly the problem has become.

Panelists seemed in general agreement that the issue has spent an unfortunate amount of time mired in political discussion. St. Onge expressed this most directly. When asked what prevented new heroin legislation from passing through the 2014 General Assembly, she said, “Politics is what killed that."

McDaniel also chimed in, saying, “The time for games is over. Enough is enough.” During the first week of the 2015 session, McDaniel sponsored Senate Bill 5, which he described as a piece of “omnibus” legislation that re-focuses the state’s approach to treating addicts and punishing traffickers.

Smoking Ban

In a pre-event survey, respondents prioritized a statewide smoking ban as the most important non-economic issue, by a 25 percent margin (44 percent saying it is the most important). But, even on the heels of a recent survey of Northern Kentucky voters showing strong support of state-wide smoking restrictions, the four panelists seemed to agree that, while smoking indoors is a problem that needs addressed across the Commonwealth, the General Assembly is not the best body to address the issue.

Schroder, the only freshman on the panel, said, “This is an issue best left to the local level. The best way to solve that problem is by voting with your feet,” arguing that consumers can decide whether or not to support smoking establishments with their patronage.

St. Onge called it a matter of “personal responsibility,” expressing her hesitation at a smoking ban.

Keene, while echoing his colleagues concerns with restricting business owners, nuanced the issue, saying, “The tragedy of a smoking environment is having children in that environment,” going on to say that he would support banning minors from any establishment that allows smoking.

Right-to-Work

Revealing the prevalent level of public understanding on the issue, Monks asked Senator McDaniel to begin the discussion on this topic by explaining, “what exactly is right-to-work.” Right-to-work legislation, if passed, would allow employees working for businesses that allow collective bargaining to opt-out of joining a union in order to retain their employment.

For McDaniel, right-to-work is an imperative for making Kentucky economically competitive. “We have some very poor counties in southern Kentucky that are losing jobs to counties in Tennessee that are only ten minutes away,” he said, also pointing out that another one of Kentucky’s border states, Indiana, has also enacted right-to-work legislation.

For Schroder, it is an issue of personal choice: “A person should have the option to decide where their money goes,” pointing to a grocery store employee he met recently who, he believes, has no motivation to join a union, but is required to.

For Keene, though, the issue is less straightforward, saying that “Right-to-work is basically the right to work for less,” echoing comments he has made previously that undercutting unions’ puts those employees at an inherent disadvantage.

Local-Option Sales Tax

Even though a local-option sales tax has been on the mind of regional leaders’ minds since before the most recent election cycle, the majority of the panel expressed doubt that any statewide legislation opening the door will leave the General Assembly this year.

Regarding a local-option sales tax, which would allow local governments to implement a 1 percent or less sales tax earmarked for specific, local projects, Keene said, “I haven’t heard the first phone call about it."

While McDaniel and Schroder echoed Keene’s experience, St. Onge explained, “I have heard from a lot of people on that. I want our area to expand.” But her regard for the issue did not come without hesitation, worrying that such a measure could result in undue competition between local economies.

Historical Preservation

Monks dedicated part of Thursday’s discussion to historical preservation, an issue that is beginning to gain traction throughout the Northern Kentucky urban core. “How can the state make historical rehabilitation and renewal easier for developers?” Monks asked.

Schroder chimed in to say that the $5 million the state allocates to funding historical preservation projects is simply not enough.

Keene also took the opportunity to plug House Bill 118, which he brought to the House floor this session, which would make applying and qualifying for a historic tax credit easier.

Felon Voting Rights

When it came to the rights of convicted felons, opinions were also mixed regarding the five-year impact a felony charge has on one’s record.. Keene, who said he felt the five-year term may be too long in some cases, said, “We, as a society, need to get these people back into society.” Schroder, though, pointed to how the system, in his eyes, already works. Referring to the governor’s role in restoring voting rights to felons, he said, “I have yet to see an example of when the governor got it wrong."

Thursday night’s panel marked the sixth annual legislative overview hosted by Northern Kentucky Forum, a nonpartisan group dedicated to generating public engagement. The Forum conducts several free “public square” events each year around current events and public policy in locations across Boone, Campbell, and Kenton Counties. For more information, see http://www.nkyforum.org.

- via Northern Kentucky Forum

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