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Monday, December 6, 2021

NKY Chamber Presents Legislative Priorities for 2022

Members of the Northern Kentucky caucus in the state legislature participated in a panel discussion with the Northern Kentucky Chamber on the organization's legislative priorities for 2022.


by Robin Gee

With an emphasis on infrastructure, the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce (NKY Chamber) laid out its legislative priorities for the coming year at a panel discussion with state legislators last week.

"Where We Stand" was the title of the panel that featured discussion and responses from members of the Northern Kentucky legislative caucus and state leaders including Kentucky Senator John Schickel and Kentucky state representatives David Meade, Rachel Roberts, Sal Santoro and Buddy Wheatley

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Although infrastructure, and particularly the Brent Spence Bridge, led the list of priorities, the Chamber’s list, developed by the organization’s Business Advocacy Council, included issues of economic development, health care and workforce development.

Top policy positions included in the 2022 Legislative Priority Agenda include:

  • Infrastructure investment
  • Regional infrastructure projects of significance
  • COVID-19 liability protections for employers
  • Vaccine employer mandates
  • Modernize unemployment insurance
  • Strengthening the workforce
  • Continue pro-growth tax reform
  • Talent attraction and retention
  • Invest in early childhood education

"Advocacy is a critical activity of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce on behalf of its members," said Patrick Hughes of DBL Law and chairman of the Business Advocacy Council. “Our state legislative agenda comes straight from our members’ feedback, and we respectively ask that our legislators consider our positions when making policy decisions. The policy recommendations for the 2022 General Assembly will continue to build growing businesses, healthy communities and economic prosperity for the region and Commonwealth."

The discussion was led by Tami Wilson, vice president of Public Affairs for the Chamber. She asked panelists questions on infrastructure; the impact of a bills that provides protection from Covid liability for businesses and measures to strengthen workforce recruitment, retention and development.

 

Infrastructure


Wilson asked panelists if the rest of the state legislature is aware of the critical need for funding to support the Brent Spence Bridge.

Rep. Santoro commended the Chamber for it’s strong advocacy for the region. "You know what, everybody wants to come to Kentucky. They’re all new to this area. I want to say thank you all because they all want to come to my district...People move here because of what you guys do. You want a job, you want a hospital, you want a school, you want an airport, we can name it, it’s here."

Rep. Meade said his colleagues are aware and noted that Rep. Santoro, who is chairman of the Transportation Committee, has done a good job of keeping the bridge in the conversation. He noted that the pool of federal money available for bridges, $12.5 billion, is highly competitive, but there is also an additional pool of $16 billion available for infrastructure projects in general, so he feels there are several avenues for funding. Yet, he also noted the competition within the commonwealth for those infrastructure dollars.

Rep. Roberts noted that her constituents list infrastructure in general as a major concern, especially roads, whether that’s potholes or traffic concerns. While the money is a great opportunity, she warned about what will be needed for the future.

"This money that’s coming in is amazing...It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to do really positive things for the commonwealth of Kentucky, but we have to be careful, it’s one-time money...We need to use this money in a way that builds up for success in a way that we can afford them down the line once this money is up. We as a state run short on our transportation budget every year...I think we ran about $100 million short on just maintaining our roads in their current condition, about $350 million a year short in repairing or replacing them."

She noted that the issue is a bigger problem than the Brent Spence Bridge but about one billion dollars of commerce comes across the bridge every day.

Rep. Wheatley said, as the representative of Covington, the Brent Spence has been a high priority for many years. He noted the partnership with Ohio on the project and said he is hopeful that only a 20 percent match of funds will be required for the funding.

While acknowledging the great need and importance of the funding for Brent Spence he brought up the Fourth Street Bridge that connects Covington and Newport as another important bridge project he hopes will also receive funding.

Senator Schickel noted that disagreements in the senate tend more toward a division between rural and urban districts rather than along party lines.

"The way the districts are right now rural has a lot of clout. Hopefully, that will change somewhat with redistricting. I think we can get fairer district this time...districts that benefit Northern Kentucky more, and I think that will be helpful with these infrastructure projects."

He went on to point out how successful the region has been with transportation issues. Everywhere you look, he said, there are road projects going on. "Some of these roads that we just planned 12 years ago, we’re cutting the ribbons on them now or will be in the next couple of years and that’s very very satisfying." 




Kentucky Senate Bill 5


Wilson then moved to ask about Kentucky Senate Bill 5, a bill designed to protect businesses from lawsuits related to the Covid-19 virus that was passed into law. It is set to expire, however, in January.

The bill protect businesses and service providers, who have followed executive actions and health guidelines during the pandemic, from liability and injury claims from consumers, customers and clients. The bill does not alter employers’ responsibility for employee health and safety or rules around workers’ compensation.

Businesses say this protection will help boost recovery efforts and protect businesses, especially small businesses. Some trial lawyers, however, have opposed the bill as they say it prevents people seeking personal injury claims from access to the courts, something outlined in the state’s constitution.

Rep. Wheatley, who is an attorney but not a trial lawyer, said he understands the opposition with regards to Kentucky’s constitution, which is unique in that it outlines total access to the courts. However, he feels there is broad support for the bill overall. With the fact that the number of Covid liability cases has been very low, there is a strong chance the protection will be extended, he said.

Rep. Meade agreed that the bill has broad support, and said issues trial lawyers had were worked out prior to passage of the bill.

Senator Schickel said there are two sides to the issue. He agreed there had been support in the senate, and the bill passed, and he anticipated it would be passed again. “But we need to recognize that in the US Constitution and the Kentucky Constitution the right to the courts and juries. In Kentucky they use the term 'sacred right'...We need to be very careful we don’t during this crisis throw our constitution under the bus and we protect the rights of citizens to access the courts.”

He said he loves to repeal regulation on businesses whenever he can but, if we are going to get rid of a regulation, we must also be able to hold businesses accountable sometimes. "Access to the courts is very important. So it’s important we strike that balance. I think it’s a much more complex question."

Modernizing the unemployment insurance system


Wilson then moved onto the issue of modernizing unemployment insurance. "Last year Kentucky generously provided $575 million to replenish the unemployment trust fund thus saving Kentucky businesses from large tax increases in unemployment insurance tax rates, do you see a path in 2022 to bring the unemployment insurance trust fund to pre-pandemic funding levels to mitigate any tax increases on employers?"

"I think this is one of the most important issues the chamber is working on...," said Senator Schickel. "If you talk about something that affects business, affects people, this unemployment situation with the current labor crisis we have is huge problem...I’m thankful the Northern Kentucky Chamber is making this a priority. I hear about it all the time from the business community."

Wilson asked the legislators what types of reforms were needed to support laid-off workers but to also incentivize returning to the job market.

Rep. Wheatley said he has seen a preliminary report of the state’s Unemployment Task Force and in it were some suggestions to provide additional training and duties for those working within the state’s unemployment insurance services. This would provide more flexibility, he said. Unemployment insurance workers would receive training not only on how to handle claims, but also issues of fraud and to be able to provide re-employment support and workforce development.

He referenced the "great resignation." What can we do policy wise?, he asked.

"How we handle this unemployment issue is going to be key," he said. “I’m a firm believer in making our employees happier, and if you look at the national and at the state level, our workforce participation rate, they are not too happy...We have to not make it too harsh on the employees, on people who have the unfortunate position of losing their employment. What are we going to do to bring them back to work?"

Rep. Santoro expressed concerns about inflation and compensation, and what will happen once the pandemic is over. He said some of the pay rate increases may not be sustainable once things normalize and supports are gone.

"This is one of those moments in time," said Rep. Roberts "where we’re having a great reset for workers and for employers and for businesses, and those moments are moments of great opportunity. I know we don’t all agree on a solution at this moment, but we’re really starting to have these discussions more broadly about we fix this system."

When this crisis first happened, the unemployment system collapsed because it’s based on an outdated system, she said. Having a smoother system to be able to answer people’s questions would have made a big difference. This is an opportunity to look at all of this, she said, not just the funding mechanism but also to look at how to upscale the workforce and keep businesses going in the future.

Rep. Meade said "What we need to do is require job training. Not one-size-fits-all training. It needs to be localized. Every area is going to have different needs...so make training an incentive...There needs to be some type of requirement...One of the things we can do is also make it easier for employers to hold those people accountable for not taking a job...We need to give them what they need when they are in need but also hold them accountable."

Workforce development


Wilson’s next topic was workforce training. She said there are thousands of jobs that go unfilled because people may not have the proper training. She asked what the legislators saw for improvement, especially in workforce development funding.

"We have two different governance models for vocational schooling, and it’s just confusing to people," said Senator Schickel. "We need to simplify funding. But I think more than anything...in my practical experience, most training for work is really on-the-job training. It’s really hard to be technically up-to-date enough to be able to train people for our workforce. We have to incentivize work."

"Workforce participation is a national problem and a particular problem in Kentucky. It was unfortunate to see as many women who were unable to stay in the workforce related to the Covid experience...We don’t have the quality child care that women need to reenter the workforce, at least to make it more attractive to do so. There are lots of parts of this national social infrastructure bill I think are good, and that’s a real strong one for me," said Rep. Wheatley.

Rep. Roberts said one solution is to take a serious look at community college. She noted that many high school students graduate with close to an associates degree due to the schools’ partnerships with Gateway College. She also cited a program through the ironworkers union that provides high school graduates the opportunity for an apprenticeship that pays $60,000 the first year. By age 20 they can be earning $120,000, she said, instead of racking up $$60, 000 or $100,000 in college debt.

"This conversation needs to be how to get people into trades programs, how to expand people’s ideas of what work is and to make that rewarding work for people down the line. And I think that conversation about free community college is something we should have ongoing."


Coming back to Brent Spence


In the question-and-answer period, the discussion circled back to the Brent Spence Bridge and some road blocks from the city of Covington. Rep Santoro said the issue has now been worked out, and Rep. Wheatley agreed now that it looks like the issue of tolls is off the table. The city is working with engineers to iron out other issues, he said.

"We want the city of Covington at the table. I want Kenton County at the table," said Rep. Santoro. "We need to know what their concerns are. Covington is our biggest city in Northern Kentucky. This is very important to me."

The representative did have a message for city councils who have sometimes balked at projects offered to their municipalities. "If it’s coming you better take it or it’s going to western Kentucky. We are going to spend the money, so please...if you have the opportunity, take it. It’s only going to come once."

The meeting wrapped up with a thank you from Wilson to legislators and members. "I look forward to working with our legislators on behalf of the Northern Kentucky business community in support of the state matching funds needed to build the bridge we’ve desperately needed for decades. We must formulate a plan to successfully compete in the federal grant process for funding a new bridge as well as other critical projects in Northern Kentucky," said Wilson.

See the NKY Chamber website for more on the organization and on their legislative priorities for 2022.

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