Chamber offers steps for General Assembly

  The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce released a statement Thursday on the  final days of the Kentucky General Assembly, offering its ideas on what should be done. Here’s the statement:

“Three key steps forward still possible for General Assembly.

The Kentucky General Assembly has an opportunity to move the state forward in three critical areas before final adjournment of the 2010 session next week by:

• Passing a fiscally responsible budget

• Addressing the state’s out-of-balance unemployment insurance program

• Positioning Kentucky for success in the federal Race to the Top competition for education funding

The budget:

Without question, the executive budget is the most important piece of legislation that lawmakers consider during their sessions in even-numbered years. The failure thus far of the House and Senate to reach agreement on the 2010-12 budget should not obscure the fact that the versions approved by the two chambers had several positive elements in common: restructuring the public employee health insurance program to reduce costs, smoking cessation coverage for Medicaid recipients, reductions in personal service contracts and political appointees, and cost-saving measures in Medicaid and corrections.

Significant points of contention focus on how much additional debt the state should incur for construction projects and whether business taxes should be increased to provide additional revenue. The Kentucky Chamber has consistently encouraged the General Assembly to pass a fiscally responsible budget — one that protects education funding to the extent possible, reduces unsustainable expenditures, limits growth in the state debt level and spares Kentuckians from a greater tax burden.

As the General Assembly works toward an agreement on the budget, legislators should not increase the tax burden on individuals or employers and should limit the use of debt to sustainable levels. Creating jobs by bonding construction projects is a laudable goal. But in our view, the better approach is to protect the jobs Kentucky employers are already providing – not to put those jobs at risk by increasing taxes on business.

Unemployment insurance:

A measure awaiting Senate action would save Kentucky employers hundreds of millions of dollars through a comprehensive reform of the state unemployment insurance system.

Kentucky’s system was out of balance before the economic downturn hit. When it did, the state was forced to borrow heavily from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits. A task force of business, labor and government representatives worked for several months to reach consensus on a solution that shares the responsibility for addressing the growing deficit among all parties.

Without the legislation, which won unanimous House approval, Kentucky’s employers will be subject to automatic federal tax increases far more onerous than the new financial structure that is part of the Kentucky-sponsored solution.

Education:

Kentucky had a strong application for federal education funding under the Race to the Top program, making it onto the list of finalists. But the state came up short for the first round of funding for one primary reason: the absence of a state law allowing charter schools.

Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has pointed out that, with the additional points a charter-school law would have provided, Kentucky would have moved up the list to No. 2 — high enough to bring $200 million to the state’s schools.

We have another chance in the second round of the federal program, and the state Senate has moved to fill the gap in Kentucky’s application by approving legislation that would allow Kentucky school districts to create charter schools.

The bill now awaiting House action would address several other education matters — including some Holliday has said would also help the state’s federal application. Its final passage and gubernatorial approval would significantly improve Kentucky’s prospects for success with federal education officials.

Conflict, debate and disagreement are part of any legislative session. Love it or hate it, that’s the way the system works. As the 2010 General Assembly enters its final two days, we encourage Kentucky’s lawmakers to take advantage of the opportunity they have to ensure this one will be a truly successful session for the state and its citizens.”

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State building no cause for concern, employees told

 

   Employees of the downtown Owensboro state office building were hit with the headline “Hotel site contaminated” streamed across the top of the front page of Wednesday’s Messenger-Inquirer. The story about serious soil contamination at the site wasn’t lost on Frankfort. Before the day was over, employees of the building received the following message from state officials:
 
“You may have read in this morning’s Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer about environmental concerns from the City of Owensboro regarding use of the site on which your office building is located. I want to assure each of you that there is no reason for concern on your part. The concerns raised in the story have no impact on the quality of the air inside your office building, as they relate directly to the potential implications of demolishing the building and developing the property for other uses.

To ensure the safety of our employees, the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection (DEP) recently conducted indoor air quality samples at your worksite. On March 10, 2010, DEP collected 8-hour time weighted samples from nine locations inside the building. This was done after working hours so that they could isolate the air flow in the building, allowing for any possible accumulation of vapor to be present. The samples were analyzed by an independent third party analytical laboratory for an exhaustive list of volatile organic compounds, including chlorinated solvents.   The results of the tests were negative. They did not detect any chlorinated solvents in air inside the building and no volatile organic compounds were detected in air at levels that pose a threat to human health.

As the result of a leak from a nearby dry cleaning business many years ago, the city and state have closely monitored the quality of the soil beneath the state office building for nearly a decade and have never had any reason for alarm. The current presence of any chemicals that may have leached beneath the site of the building will not pose any threat to health or safety. The soil’s environmental condition does not preclude the future reuse and redevelopment of this property with proper mitigation of the soil.

The air quality in and around your building poses no threat to your health.  Please be assured there is also no risk associated with enjoying your lunch or breaks in the area outside of the State Office Building.”
 
According to Cindy Lanham, director of communications for the Finance and Administration Cabinet, the message was signed by various state department directors who have workers in the Owensboro facility.

Friday, the Owensboro City Commission will hold a special called meeting to vote on repealing the ordinance that was approved earlier this month purchasing the state building. According to a source, the city now wants nothing to do with the building because of the contamination problems.

Insurance commissioner warns about health offers

Commissioner urges consumers to ask questions, understand products

Kentucky Insurance Commissioner Sharon P. Clark is warning Kentuckians to be cautious when evaluating health care offers.

Her office said Internet pop-up ads, commercials on late night television, faxes and postcards are promising “a low-cost product that will cover all of your health care needs. In today’s economy, some of these offers seem like the answer to consumer concerns.”

A news release from Clark’s office says:

.“Our Consumer Protection division is noting a troubling increase in calls and complaints about entities making claims that are misleading, confusing or outright deceptive,” Clark said. “Consumers should ask questions and be very careful before they sign up for any of these products.”

Clark cautions consumers to be aware that health discount plans, which offer savings on health care services ranging from doctor visits to prescription drugs, are not insurance. Most provide a “membership” for a monthly fee. Health discount plans are under the jurisdiction of Kentucky’s Office of the Attorney General.

“These plans are not a substitute for a health or Medicare supplement plan,” Clark said.

In addition, some companies are offering limited health plans, often marketed as cancer only, specific disease, hospital cash or indemnity plans. As the name suggests, these plans offer limited benefits and are generally sold to supplement a comprehensive health insurance plan, not as an alternative.

While health discount plans and limited health plans may be appropriate for some consumers, Commissioner Clark said that is not the case with unauthorized “health insurance” products being sold by fly-by-night entities.

“These companies are not authorized to sell health insurance in Kentucky. They sell a product to consumers with no intention of providing benefits. By the time we find out about these groups, consumers have been harmed and the company is usually gone, taking the money with them,” Clark said.

Clark offers these tips to consumers:

·       If the company is selling a health insurance product, contact the Department of Insurance to be sure the entity is authorized to do business in Kentucky. If an agent is involved in an insurance sale, you will want to be sure he/she is licensed. Consumers with questions or concerns about any insurance product may call the department at 800-595-6053 (Kentucky) or 502-564-3630 (outside Kentucky) and ask to speak to a Consumer Protection investigator. Clark urges consumers to make the call before purchasing.

·       Ask questions and understand what you are buying. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Be sure you have read all the material and know what you are buying before you sign any documents, particularly those asking for bank or credit card information.

·       Be extremely cautious about doing business with an entity if you are asked for a credit card number or other payment for an “association membership” prior to receiving a quote.

·       If you are purchasing a limited health plan, be sure you know the limitations of the coverage, as well as any exclusions or coverage gaps.

·       If you are buying a product online, observe the usual safe shopping tips such as being sure the Web site is secure. Be sure to locate a physical and mailing address for any entity. Be sure a phone number is listed and that the number is working. Keep copies of everything you submit.

·       When purchasing what appears to be an insurance product, watch for red flags including:

o       a cost much lower than traditional health insurance premiums,

o       applications accepted with little or no underwriting for medical conditions,

o       a health plan that claims to be exempt from state regulation, and

o       a plan that claims to be an alternative to traditional health insurance.

 

Consumers can search for a company or agent by going to the Department of Insurance Web site at http://insurance.ky.gov.

17.7 percent of Kentuckians qualify for food stamps

More than one Kentuckian in six — 17.7 percent —  qualifies for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly the Food Stamp Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said recently.
The agency said that 757,651 Kentuckians are now receiving assistance through the program.

That’s up 13 percent from last year.

“The beauty of the program is that it expands and contracts based on economic conditions,” the agency said in a news release.

Since April, federal stimulus dollars have provided additional $159,253,929 in benefits and administrative support to Kentucky and its citizens, the report said.

Stimulus dollars now give each family of four an additional $80 a month to buy food, it said.

Kentucky also received more than $2 million in food and administrative expenses to support local food banks, pantries and soup kitchens, the report said, and more than $1.7 million to help schools provide nutritious and safe meals.

Nationally, the program is serving more than 38 million people each month.

Disabled veterans get 3 free nights in state parks

Kentucky veterans who have been totally and permanently disabled as a result of their military service can stay in Kentucky state parks for up to three nights a year now at no charge.

That’s a result of legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear.

“Kentucky’s military men and women have an unparalleled reputation for courage and commitment,” Beshear said in a news release. “We can never fully repay such service. But we can make decisions to show in tangible ways our gratitude.”

He said: “Kentucky has top-notch parks built around some of the most beautiful landscapes in the nation. This small gesture makes that beauty available to those who have given so much to this state.”

“We must always strive to honor those brave men and women who have sacrificed so much to our commonwealth and our country,” said Sen. Elizabeth Tori, R-Radcliff.  “This legislation is but a small token of our appreciation.”

Governor asks employees for help in cutting budget

If you’re a state employee, Gov. Steve Beshear needs your help in cutting the budget.

Beshear said Wednesday that he’s asking state employees for suggestions on ways to cut costs— and save jobs.

The governor’s office sent an e-mail to all state employees Wednesday, asking for their ideas on where to make the cuts.
“We need people from all levels and areas to take a look around and let us know if they think their agency or any other areas of state government could be operating more efficiently,” Beshear said in a news release. “Every dollar we can save through these cost-saving measures will help preserve jobs.”

The  state’s Employee Suggestion System, an online project administered by the Personnel Cabinet since 1981, “accepts suggestions from merit employees who have proposals for ways to improve government operations and save money,” the news release said.

If an employee’s suggestion is implemented, he or she may be eligible for a cash reward. 

In the past, non-merit employees have not been able to offer comments through the site. But Beshear’s office said the site will now “offer the means to collect input from non-merit employees, although they will not be eligible for cash rewards.”

Nonmerit employees are those whose jobs are not protected by the state’s merit system. They include cabinet and deputy secretaries, commissioners, directors, public-affairs officers, attorneys and others who serve at the governor’s discretion.

“The state workforce is comprised of employees who care deeply about the efficiency and resourcefulness of their agencies, so who better to ask for input and ideas than our employees,” Nikki Jackson, secretary of the Personnel Cabinet, said in the news release.

“During the past two years alone, the savings realized by implementing employee suggestions has totaled $2.1 million,” she said.

Beshear is trying to close a $1.5 billion spending gap this time.
But every little bit helps.

State employees can submit their suggestions at http://personnel.ky.gov.

PSC: One in three utility customers without power during worst of winter storm

The Public Service Commission announced this morning that according to their figures, about one in three electric customers were without power after the winter storm covered the state in ice and snow last week. 

Based on information from all the state’s utility providers, the state utility oversight agency found that 769,353 customers out of the state’s 2.2 million were without power at one point during the storm. 

About 208,000 customers are still waiting for power to be restored today, according to the PSC. 

Here’s the breakdown from the PSC – 

                                                            

Jurisdictional utilities                                607,152                                      142,785

TVA-served utilities                                   108,619                                       52,600

    Cooperatives and municipal

Non-TVA municipal utilities                       53,582                                       12,950

 

TOTAL                                                         769,353                                     208,335