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Education, heroin treatment top public’s funding list

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By Bryan Marshall

Education funding and increased heroin treatment headlined the issues speakers advocated for Feb. 1 during a meeting of the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus.
The caucus, which is comprised of legislators throughout northern Kentucky, held the public meeting at the Grant County Courthouse in Williamstown.
The purpose of the meetings is to provide a forum for constituents to offer input on issues during the 2014 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The caucus is chaired by Rep. Adam Koenig of the 69th District and also includes local legislators, Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and Rep. Brian Linder.
Of the 18 legislators part of the caucus, 10 were present for the meeting, including Thayer, Linder and Koenig, along with Sen. Chris McDaniel and Reps. Sal Santoro, Diane St. Onge, Thomas Kerr, Addia Wuchner, Joseph Fischer and Thomas McKee.
Nearly 20 people spoke on varied issues they hope the General Assembly will support during its current budget-year session.
The most discussed topic was education funding as Northern Kentucky University President Geoffrey Mearns and Gateway and Community Technical College President G. Edward Hughes spoke on behalf of postsecondary education.
Several community members also highlighted the benefits and necessity of the NKU-Grant County Center.
“I just want to say how instrumental Northern Kentucky University has been in my life,” said Dawn Clayton. “I was very ecstatic when the center came to Grant County.”
With the heroin epidemic continuing to grow in northern Kentucky, several speakers focused on the need for a way to curb the addiction.
Eric Specht, whose 30-year-old son, Nicholas, died from a heroin overdose in Ft. Thomas in August, wore a “NKY Hates Heroin” sweatshirt alongside his wife, Holly, as he spoke in support of a bill that would help get more long-term treatment facilities for drug addicts.
“It’s my understanding that (northern Kentucky) gets one-fifth of the number of residential treatment beds that are available to Lexington and Louisville,” he said. “Campbell County, Boone County and Kenton County accounted for 60 percent of the heroin overdoses in the state of Kentucky in 2012. There’s a real need for treatment. When your son comes to you and says, “Dad, I need help,’ and there’s nowhere to go.”
Jim Parsons, vice chair of government affairs for the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce board, expressed the chamber’s support for a funding solution for the Brent Spence Bridge project, as well as letting voters decide on expanded gaming.
“You’re going to get a lot of requests for revenue and we know the budget is tight,” Parsons said. “We have at least a partial solution for that and that’s casino gambling. We think it’s time to move that forward in Kentucky. The polls all support that across the state. It’s not a tax. It’s a volunteer revenue producer for the state.”
Dr. Lynne Saddler, director of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department, said seven out of 10 Kentuckians support a statewide smoke-free law that would prohibit smoking in all work sites, including bars and restaurants.
“It’s higher among those who’ve never smoked and who don’t smoke, but even amongst smokers, four out of 10 support a statewide smoke-free law,” she said. “Our board hopes that a smoke-free law in Kentucky will not only protect residents from exposure from secondhand smoke, but also encourage smokers to quit.”
Mike Hammons, director of advocacy for Children Inc., said he hopes legislators keep the restoration of children assistance funding Gov. Steve Beshear has proposed in his budget.
“As part of a budget cutback announced last January, the state slashed funding for childcare assistance for low income parents from 150-percent of poverty to qualify to 100-percent, which made us the lowest qualifying standard in the nation,” Hammons said. “That means a person working minimum wage, full-time no longer qualifies for a penny of childcare assistance.”
More than 1,400 children in northern Kentucky have already have lost childcare assistance due to the cuts, said Hammons.
While the format of the meeting was set up as a forum for legislators to listen to issues constituents have instead of respond to each plea, each lawmaker did take the opportunity to speak at the end.
After jokingly reminding people to spend money in Grant County while in town, Linder said he appreciated hearing about the causes people were fighting for funding for.
“When people come to visit me, I tell them that I am not an expert in everything,” he said. “There are a lot of issues that I do not understand. I think a public servant should admit that to people.”
Thayer, who spoke more than any other legislator, said it is important for people to understand the reality of the budget situation the state is facing.
“We are in an economic recovery that is anemic at best,” he said. “It’s not getting any better and it probably won’t get any better in the next couple years. That means that the revenues coming into the state are difficult to predict. The bottom line is that the revenues coming into the state are not supportive of the level of requests that the General Assembly has.”
Thayer said the General Assembly has received $3.5 billion in requests above the amount of money that is projected to come into the state over the next two years.
While he admits revenue growth may provide a couple hundred million more than the state had in the last biennium, Thayer said that will be eaten up by required contributions to the state employee pensions and increases in costs in Medicaid.
“So, we have some very difficult choices,” Thayer said. “I don’t see the people of Kentucky wishing to pay $3.5 billion more in taxes to deal with these requests. I don’t see the people of Kentucky wanting to pay anymore in taxes than they are right now. It’s going to be a big challenge. Chances are not everybody is going to be happy. Very few people are going to be happy because I just don’t see us increasing spending to tackle these issues.”
A second meeting of the Northern Kentucky Legislative Caucus will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 22 at the Northern Kentucky University METS Center in Erlanger.