Posted on Fri, Oct. 01, 2004

Editorials from the Herald-Leader, The Courier-Journal, The Kentucky Enquirer

Associated Press

Excerpts from recent editorials from across Kentucky:

Herald-Leader, Lexington

The more we learn about health insurance for Kentucky's teachers and public employees, the harder it is to believe that the current "crisis" was inevitable.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher keeps insisting that he inherited the problem. But from all appearances, the Fletcher administration inherited the same difficult challenges as other administrations and made a mega.m.ess of it.

Fletcher also has stressed that taxpayers shouldn't be forced to foot the bill so government workers can have better health benefits than they enjoy (as if government workers weren't also taxpayers.)

But Kentucky's public employees pay more for family health coverage than any other state's employees and more than three times the national average for state employees, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It's true that Kentucky's plan covers retirees who are older and have more and costlier medical problems. But Kentucky's costs have not been out of line with other states'.

The lowest-cost family plan in Tennessee's state employee health insurance program, for example, was $921 last year, of which the state picked up $737 and the employee $184.

In Kentucky, the cost was $827. The state picked up $286, and the employee had to pay $541.

The study was based on a standard family plan using the lowest-cost, full-service HMO as an example.

Kentucky ranks 18th among the states in total premium cost.

Nationally, total premium costs for family coverage in state government plans rose 80 percent from 1999 to 2003 and 105 percent in Kentucky.

During that time, the average contribution to monthly premiums by state governments increased nearly 69 percent from 1999 to 2003 while employee contributions rose 56.3 percent.

In Kentucky, however, state government contributions rose only 41.4 percent (from $203 a month in 1999 to $287 in 2003) while employee contributions jumped 170.5 percent (from $200 to $541).

Kentucky employees have been paying a steep price for family coverage compared to their counterparts around the country. And the Patton administration also raised out-of-pocket costs to employees - but nothing on the order of what the Fletcher administration is now proposing.

The Fletcher plan also drastically reduces the health care options available to teachers and state workers by divvying up the state into eight regional insurance monopolies. (It reminds us of the way the road builders have informally divvied up the state into monopolies and how how well that's worked for taxpayers.)

With no competition for public employees' business, the insurers won't have to hustle to provide good service or broad provider networks.

So, while the so-called crisis is hurting Fletcher politically and outraging teachers and their friends, it's not a bad deal at all for the health insurance industry.

The Courier-Journal, Louisville

The birth of freedom is a wonderful thing to see, whether it happens in Afghanistan or in Trenton, N. J.

And in Trenton last week, Gov. James McGreevey's impending resignation, which follows his revelation that he is gay and had a very compromising extramarital affair, has given him the freedom to do something he couldn't bring himself to do before: He has signed an executive order that will break the link between campaign contributions and the awarding of government contracts in his state.

"Pay to play" is what the practice is called in New Jersey. In Kentucky, it's simply business as usual.

Courier-Journal reporter Tom Loftus has spent much of his career documenting the correlation between the contributions made by road builders, architects, engineers, law firms and building owners and the awarding of state government contracts and leases.

That connection has cost Kentucky taxpayers a bundle: In 1999, for example, this newspaper determined that the state had "wasted millions of dollars in the last two decades by leasing office space instead of building it."

In Trenton last week, Gov. McGreevey took a step Kentucky needs to take, too: He prohibited businesses that donate to state or local political committees or to gubernatorial candidates from getting government contracts.

Gov. McGreevey cited the "corrosive and cancerous" effect of that kind of fund raising. Recent governors of Illinois and Connecticut could also bear witness, since their political careers ended prematurely after they were caught exploiting the connection for personal gain as well.

State Sen. David Williams, R-Burkesville, is aware of the problem. On his very first day as Senate president, in January 2000, he filed Senate Bill 2, which would have prohibited people who contribute to candidates for governor or to political parties from holding state contracts and leases.

The Republican Senate passed the bill easily. But it died in the Democratic House.

Democrats, at the time, had more to lose. Paul Patton, a Democrat, was governor. They couldn't afford to give up that fund-raising advantage.

"It would be damaging to elections and campaign processes we go through in Kentucky," the bill-killer said.

Yes, it certainly would have been. And that was precisely the point.

Unfortunately, with a Republican governor in office now and Republicans seeing the possibility of strengthening their power in the legislature, the interest of Sen. Williams and his party in this kind of legislation waned. In fact, it disappeared.

Clearly, neither political party can claim the high ground on this issue. The high ground seems to fall to the party - or, in Gov. McGreevey's case, the individual - that has nothing left to lose.

But the mutual exploitation of contractors and politicians is a disgrace. Sen. Williams expressed that on his first day in leadership, and Gov. McGreevey confirmed it on one of his last.

The Kentucky Enquirer, Fort Mitchell

Monday's one-day protest by Kentucky teachers over rising health insurance costs brought added attention to this issue, which affects more than 170,000 state employees. It also put the pressure where it belongs - on state lawmakers, whose budget gridlock led to this crisis. The stakes are high for members of the General Assembly, which Gov. Ernie Fletcher has called into special session Oct. 5 to find a solution. They'd better have their thinking caps on, because this will be tough to solve.

Teachers were led to protest after Fletcher cut insurance benefits and raised premiums in the face of rapidly rising health care costs. The decision hit state workers hard. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Kentucky already ranked dead last among states in employee health benefits. Fletcher's hands were tied by a Legislature that couldn't agree on a state budget that could have authorized extra spending and identified revenue sources.

So the special session is crucial, but the Democratic-controlled House, led by Speaker Jody Richards, has been at loggerheads all year with the GOP-run Senate, presided over by David Williams.

Williams says the special session could last two to four weeks. That could bring a possible resolution uncomfortably close to a Oct. 27 strike date set by the 29,000-member Kentucky Education Association teachers union - not to mention the Nov. 2 election, in which all the Kentucky House seats and half the Senate seats will be in play. A legislative meltdown could stoke anti-incumbent sentiment at the polls.

But easing workers' burden may be easier said than done. Critics cite $305 million in new, unexpected state revenue flowing in, but Fletcher already has been forced to commit most of those funds in the absence of a legislative tax/spending plan. Lawmakers would have to find the money elsewhere, but cutting other programs just before an election would take considerable political courage.

Also, administration officials point out the state is already locked into contracts with health care firms. Lawmakers may not be able to change the terms even if they want to.

Some lawmakers say the special session is an ill-timed exercise in blame-shifting by Fletcher. But they, not Fletcher, have the power to enact a compromise tax-budget plan, and they ought to be able to find creative solutions that might placate voters Nov. 2.

Perhaps the most realistic scenario is one Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, outlined to the Louisville Courier-Journal: offer workers a break on health insurance next year, and appoint a special task force to craft a long-term fix.

At any rate, there's nothing like the prospect of losing your job to help focus the mind. So focus, lawmakers, focus.


Words & Graphics by Tomas