In-Depth News WFPL News Department Podcast

Legislative Pace Lags Behind Previous Sessions

The 2008 Kentucky legislative session is halfway over and so far, the House and Senate have passed far fewer bills than at this point in recent 60 days sessions.

Since the start of the legislative session in January, and as of February 15, the Senate has passed 28 bills. That’s the fewest to clear the chamber by this point in the last three 60-day sessions.

“We generally are very sensitive to ensure the quality of the legislation, and frankly, quantity is not the measure of good legislative product,” says Katie Stine, President Pro Tempore of the Republican-controlled Senate.

Stine thinks the body is passing more meaningful bills and sending them to the House.

But the House hasn’t passed any of the Senate’s 28 bills. The Senate hasn’t passed any of the House’s bills’ either.

And the House has passed fewer of its own bills, too. 50, that’s less than half the average for the past 3 sessions.

Stine says despite the lack of action, the House and Senate are tracking each other’s progress.

“Things don’t happen in one chamber or another in a vacuum,” she says. “We’re watching what the other chamber is doing.”

By this point in the 2006 session, one bill had already been signed into law. In 2002, four were signed by the halfway point. Many more bills were eventually passed those years, but historically, most of the bills the governor signs are voted on in the last week or two before the General Assembly adjourns.

“It comes so fast at the end, sometimes the members of the legislature don’t know what they’re voting for or know the substance of the bills,” says Richard Beliles, chairman of the legislative watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky.

Beliles thinks the key to progress is a more efficient legislature. One that doesn’t wait until the last minute to pass bills.

“They’re just all bunched together and that’s a problem,” he says.

“That is true,” says Representative Charlie Hoffman. “That is true up to a point.”

Hoffman, a Democrat from Georgetown, is the House Majority Caucus leader. He attributes the pace to human nature.

“There’s a sizeable part of the legislature that’s procrastinators and I think legislators have that same percentage as the makeup of our population of procrastinators too,” he says.

Hoffman says another reason for the slow start is the political process itself. Kentucky, like most states, has a citizen legislature. One that spends most of its time out of session. While that keeps legislators connected to their constituents, it also results in a slower start to the two month sessions.

Senator Stine agrees.

“A lot of times you need those alliances from across the state in order to get everybody in the state legislature to vote for your legislation,” she says.

While Stine thinks the time legislators spend getting to know each other and the lobbyists is worthwhile, she has another theory about the snail’s pace of this session.

“This governor tends to speak primarily to his own party members,” she says.

Stine adds she’s not sure why Governor Beshear hasn’t spent much time with Senate Republicans. Especially when he was crafting legislation to expand casino gaming, a key component of his campaign that will be a tough sell in the GOP controlled chamber.

“We have had so much success in the past when we worked with the minority party,” says Stine.

The success of the casino legislation remains to be seen, as it was just unveiled on February 14. But right now, it’s in a committee in the House, along with over 500 other bills awaiting action.

Listen to the story.

In-Depth News WFPL News Department Podcast

Dental Care Lacking For Kentucky's Kids

Dental caries, a cause of tooth decay and cavities, is the most prevalent infectious disease among American Children, and it’s something experts say can easily be cured by brushing and visiting a dentist. For kids in Kentucky, though, getting to the dentist can be a challenge.

Samuel Newton is ten years old and he’s getting his teeth checked at a free clinic at the University of Louisville. His last cleaning was more than two years ago.

That’s more frequently than many Kentucky kids. Some of the other 350 elementary schoolers at this clinic have never been to a dentist. Dental students at the university say it’s not uncommon to see children with 20 teeth and a cavity in each one.

“The main problem with Kentucky kids getting dental care is access to dentistry,” says Dr. Julie Watts McKee, Kentucky’s Dental Director.

McKee says on average Kentucky has one dentist for every 1,800 people. That’s below the national average, which McKee says is too low itself. But Kentucky’s access problem is regional. In cities like Louisville and Lexington, there’s a dentist for every 1,200 or so people. In rural areas, where teeth tend to be worse, there’s one dentist for every 2,600 people.

Lots of kids in those areas are on Medicaid, too. McKee says that’s a big reason why dentists are scarce.

“Dentists aren’t accepting Medicaid to meet the needs of the young patient, and a lot of it is attributed to the reimbursement rates,” she says. “One of the things the Department of Public Health is going to look at in the future is what does it cost a private dentist to see a Medicaid patient?”

“A standard dental chair is very expensive, it costs $15,000,” says Dr. Christian Rahn. Rahn is among the 75% of Kentucky Dentists who don’t accept Medicaid.

Rahn says it takes about one hour to treat a child and it cost about $600 an hour to keep his practice running. Medicaid pays less than forty dollars per child. Therefore, he can’t afford to treat Medicaid patients.

“There’s no way to do quality dentistry, in my opinion, if you take Medicaid,” says Rahn.

Across the river, Indiana had this same problem in the 1990s. The state eventually increased Medicaid payouts for dental work. Kentucky has slightly increased its payouts, but Dr. McKee, the Kentucky dental director, says that exposed another problem involving Medicaid patients.

“One of the things we know is the average Medicaid population has a much larger no show rate on their appointments than private pay or third party coverage,” she says.

For reasons McKee can’t explain, many Medicaid patients in Kentucky just don’t show up for their dental appointments. That wastes time, increases costs and provides one more reason for dentists to avoid working in Kentucky.

Indiana keeps dentists in the state in part by offering student loan forgiveness. Kentucky doesn’t have a statewide program for dentistry student loan forgiveness. Lawmakers are considering one, but McKee says it’s uncertain how it will do given the current budget shortfall.

And Rahn says loan forgiveness and affordable dentistry will only help so much. He says there’s one thing schools, dentists, parents and the state can do…teach prevention.

“This boils down to making sure the parents understand what they need to do and follow through with it,” says Dr. Anne Greenwell, the head of pediatric dentistry at the University of Louisville.

According to the Surgeon General, Kentucky adults have the second worst teeth in the nation. Greenwell says kids follow suit, despite recent studies that claim dramatic side-effects of poor oral health.

“Kids with large cavities have been shown to demonstrate symptoms of attention deficit disorder,” says Greenwell.

“Dementia has been linked to dentistry,” says Dr. Rahn. “Everything from heart disease to diabetes to premature birth. All that has been linked to the bacteria in your mouth.”

Doctors Rahn, Greenwell and McKee all think better education – for kids and parents – will lead to better dental care at home. That care will lighten the Medicaid burden, improve dental care in rural areas, and lead to better overall health for children.

Listen to the story.

In-Depth News

Gatton Academy

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has asked all state Universities to cut their current budgets by three percent. For Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, that’s about same amount it costs to fund a year-old program for gifted high school students.

“I’d really like to go to U-C Berkley,” says high school junior Jenny Ludden as she reads a physics textbook in a dormitory lounge. Down the hall, her classmates are taking a college-level astronomy course.

Ludden and the others are students at the Carol Martin Gatton Academy of Math and Science. Like other high school students, they’re thinking of the future. Academy director Tim Gott says most students here are applying to “Harvard and Yale and Princeton and Brown.”

“We’ve got students interested in the University of Chicago and Tulane and Florida and Florida Institute of Technology. MIT and CalTech,” says Gott.

Gatton Academy is giving gifted high school juniors and seniors from around Kentucky an advanced education, including college classes. Part of the appeal of similar programs is that the students stay in their home state after graduation. Gott predicts about half of the academy students will go to college in the commonwealth. He says they’ll have little to no trouble getting in. The average ACT score of this year’s class is 27, and the average GPA is 3.9.

That ACT score is more than 6 points higher than the state average. But despite its exclusivity, Gatton isn’t a private school.

Students live and study here at no additional charge to the family. The state spends just over $23.3 thousand per Gatton Academy student. Comparatively, about $8,700 is spent on every other public school student.

“How many physics teachers can you buy with that, how many chemistry teachers can you get with that?” says Gott. “How many advanced math teachers can you get with that? By pooling the money and putting it into one focus, we’re able to have the top math and science curriculum in the state in a place and time when it’s difficult to find even one physics teacher for all the special needs out there.”

“It’s something that I have worked on for more than ten years,” says Kentucky Speaker of the House Jody Richards. “To have a math and science academy.”

Richards’ legislative district includes Gatton. He was instrumental in getting the academy funded.

“The general assembly provided a special appropriation to make this academy a reality. We have 2.8 million in state funding,” he says.

Western Kentucky University chief financial officer Ann Mead says that appropriation came in 2006, with the money to be used exclusively for Gatton.

Now the governor is asking Western to cut 3% of its total budget, which is slightly less than the total cost of the academy.

Mead says the academy is not in danger of closing, but will have to bear its own budget cut of up to three percent.

And Richards says there’s still some unfinished business regarding Gatton that will come up in the current General Assembly. New legislation will make Gatton a full graduating school. Right now, the academy is not authorized to award official diplomas. In the meantime, they’ve made a deal in which the students’ hometown high schools award diplomas students who complete their coursework at Gatton.

So when Jenny Ludden graduates, she’ll get a diploma from Adair County High School, 80 miles away from Gatton Academy.

Listen to the story.

In-Depth News

GED TV Program Faces Funding Shortage

A study from Kentucky Adult Education placed the Commonwealth 49th in the nation for the percentage of adults without a high school diploma or GED. Now, a Kentucky program that has helped adults nationwide get their GED for thirty three years is facing hard fiscal times.

Local News Politics

Bill Could Give Independents Primary Votes

A bill that will go before the Kentucky General Assembly in 2009 would allow Independents a vote in the state’s primaries.

Republican Representative Jimmy Higdon of Lebanon has pre-filed the measure, which would let Independents cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary without having to change their registration.

Higdon says some of his constituents couldn’t vote in the 2008 presidential primaries, and they’ve asked him to sponsor the bill.

“There’s quite a few of those in Kentucky,” he says. “I know in my representative district, there’s about a thousand voters who are registered as independent or other.”

Kentucky has a closed primary system, meaning only members of the major parties are allowed to vote in their respective primaries.