Journal-Times (Grayson, KY)

Columns

March 9, 2011

Senate week in review: Medicaid

March 9, 2011 —     FRANKFORT  — This week, we saw some very good legislation and, unfortunately, some very poor legislation moving through the legislative process.

    Legislation I strongly opposed dealt with a proposed measure to balance the Medicaid budget. Medicaid needs to be fixed – no doubt about that -- but it needs to be fixed with Medicaid money and not by sacrificing education as well as other state programs and jobs.

    I voted against House Bill 305 -- a plan to balance the State Medicaid budget -- as amended by the Senate Committee Substitute for that very reason. I have heard from teachers and school administrators throughout my district and they are all delivering the same message: Education cannot withstand additional cuts.

    School personnel and programs have already been cut severely in most districts and additional reductions in funding to schools will significantly impact teaching and learning. School systems are already facing a reduction in funds because of the rising gasoline prices. A 2.26 percent reduction will force schools to release teachers and other staff, which naturally will result in overcrowded classrooms.

    When I came to Frankfort, one of my goals was to help make education better – not to hurt school systems. I fear additional cuts will do great damage to education in the Commonwealth. We have already cut all the fat out of the education budget, and now we are cutting into the muscle and bone. It has to stop. This is the eighth budget cut we have seen in the last five years. Those cuts are affecting all of Kentucky.

    As legislators, we are aware of the recession and its impact on our state. There are no easy answers, but balancing the budget on the backs of our children – our future – is not the answer. I hope a better solution can be worked out in a conference committee.

    Very few truly transformational reforms ever make it through the legislative process. Our two-chamber system was designed by the framers for just that purpose -- to slow down hasty overhauls and focus on incremental changes -- a tweak here and there to fix the current problems, rather than scrapping entire systems.

    Over time, however, those small adjustments can lead to a system that does not function as a cohesive whole. That has become the case with our State’s criminal code, which was last comprehensively reviewed in the 1970s.

    Since then, every new criminal issue, from drugs to abuse of modern technology, has given rise to legislation establishing new crimes with (usually) stiff penalties.

    Many times the punishment fits the crime, but the State has often reacted just like the public at large -- overestimating the threat and requiring unnecessarily long sentences.

    That has especially been true with non-violent drug offenses.  Injustice in the disposition of these offenses punishes every taxpayer in Kentucky through expensive prison stays, when outpatient drug treatment or community service would be a cheaper alternative that returns those offenders to a productive society.

    In fact, corrections spending is now one of the largest growth areas in the State budget, driven largely by jail time for inmates convicted of non-violent drug crimes and other issues caused by their drug use.

    We moved in the direction of treatment instead of incarceration in 2009 with Senate Bill 4, which was designed to help identify addicts and get them the help they need to overcome their problems, rather than simply lock them up and — as long prison terms frequently do — turn them into hardened criminals.

    This week, we took the next giant step toward restoring rationality to the system and passed the first comprehensive penal-code reform in nearly 40 years. House Bill 463 is the result of a yearlong study by a task force of judges, attorneys, public officials and legal experts, all focused on making the criminal justice system work more effectively, efficiently and rationally.

    HB 463 will reduce the penalties for minor drug misdemeanors, such as possession of small amounts, allowing people to seek treatment under community supervision. The real source of the problem — drug dealers and suppliers — would instead be the focus of harsh penalties.

    Police will also issue more simple citations for petty drug crimes rather than making an immediate arrest and forcing offenders to waste tax dollars sitting in jail overnight. The theme is the same: cellblocks are only for those who are dangerous to society, because there are other options for less-threatening offenders.

    Another step forward in this bill is a new mandate for evidence-based, data-driven programs. In the future, the only diversion programs that use your tax dollars will be those proven by facts that work.

    For those who do go to prison, HB 463 would encourage education and drug treatment by giving prisoners sentence credit for work in those areas, getting them back to productive lives and giving them the tools they need to work and support themselves.

    Just as important as the bill’s impact on individuals and families is its effect on our budget. Estimates range as high as $147 million in savings over the next decade from reduced jail and court costs alone, even after reinvestments in treatment programs, as well as probation and parole monitoring.

    That does not include the jobs would-be inmates can obtain following drug treatment, boosting our economy and State tax revenues.

Savings in prison costs through reduced jail population will be accomplished by moving many non-violent drug offenders into addiction treatment programs and community supervision – as they transition back into society, hopefully as productive citizens.

    To help insure sure that small criminal code changes do not add up to further problems, HB 463 also mandates that any future legislation affecting the criminal code be analyzed for its impact on the State treasury and identify funding sources to pay for itself.

    The final step was that legislators and Governor Steve Beshear worked together across party lines to finalize this piece of legislation. This week, the Governor signed HB 463 into law.

    We are down to the last few days of the session now. The details of many complex bills, such as balancing the state Medicaid budget, will be worked out between leaders of both parties in both chambers.

    Your input is an important as ever. To leave a message for me, your House member, or any other legislator, call the General Assembly’s toll-free Message Line at (800) 372-7181. People with hearing impairments may leave messages for lawmakers by calling the TTY Message Line at (808) 896-0305. Or you can e-mail me directly at robin.webb@lrc.ky.gov

    Sen. Webb represents Bracken, Carter, Greenup, Lewis, Mason and Robertson counties.

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