Tuition, new driver's licenses on legislature's final day

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's high school graduates got free community college tuition and its drivers got new licenses on the last day of a tumultuous legislative session before a fall election season that could reshape the state's political power.

The House and Senate approved two-year, $68 billion spending plan that includes $25 million in state tax dollars to pay the community college tuition for all Kentucky high school graduates who meet certain requirements. And they overhauled the state's driver's license process to comply with federal standards, meaning Kentuckians will have to pay $48 to get a new license by 2019 or they won't be able to use it to board domestic flights.

Both bills now go to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for his review. Because they were passed on the last day of the session, the legislature cannot override any potential vetoes. Bevin's actions will be watched closely by both sides as they prepare for the November elections, where all 100 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for grabs in the last legislative chamber in the South still controlled by Democrats.

The scholarship program is open to all Kentucky high school graduates. To be eligible, the students must take at least 15 credit hours per semester and maintain a cumulative 2.5 grade point average. The money would only cover what other state and federal scholarships do not for four semesters. Students would have to pay back the money for any semester they did not finish, except for an emergency, or if their cumulative grade point average fell below 2.5.

Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said the proposal would let students "get a debt free two year jump on working toward their college degree."

"That program will be here when all of us are gone. It's going to be a very, very far-reaching program," Stumbo said.

But the proposal would still need to be reviewed by Bevin, the Republican governor. Bevin can veto portions of the bill. If he does, the legislature cannot override him because they have used already used all of the 60 legislative days state law allows them to meet this year.

"I like anything that is involved with a thoughtful approach to workforce development," Bevin said of the scholarship program. "I'm going to look at the final language of it and we'll make a determination as to whether it is the best way for us to spend the taxpayers' money."

Bevin praised lawmakers on Friday for passing a budget he says puts Kentucky on "solid footing" for dedicating $1.28 billion to the state's pension system, whose estimated debt at more than $30 billion makes it one of the worst funded systems in the country. He pledged to sign the bill after reviewing its details.

The scholarships are available at any of the 16 institutions that make up the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, along with two-year degree programs at other public and private colleges and universities. Lawmakers set aside $10 million for the scholarships for the school year that begins in the fall and $15 million for the next year. Once the money runs out, so do the scholarships.

Other key bills approved on the legislature's last day included one overhauling Kentucky's driver's license process. Kentucky is one of 27 states that have not complied with new federal requirements for driver's licenses. People will need the new licenses to enter federal buildings, military bases and board domestic flights.

To get a new license, beginning in 2019, Kentucky drivers will have to pay $48 and bring in a copy of their birth certificate and two proofs of residency. The new license will still contain the same information, but it will have a star in the top right corner surrounded by a gold circle. The license is optional. But anyone who does not get it won't be able to board a domestic flight without a passport or a passport card beginning in 2020. Bevin has indicated he will sign the bill.

Other bills gaining passage included one that will likely increase taxes on hotel guests in the state's second-largest city. The bill allows the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government to increase the tax on hotel rooms to 8.5 percent from 6 percent. The money from the increase will help pay for a $250 million expansion of the Lexington Convention Center. The convention center complex includes Rupp Arena, the famed home of the University of Kentucky's men's basketball team. But the construction will not impact the basketball arena.

Lawmakers also increased registration fees for lobbyists to $500 from $125. The extra money will go to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which is charged with holding the Bevin administration accountable to state ethics laws. Nearly 700 businesses and organizations registered to lobby the state legislature this year, a 12 percent increase over the previous 60-day session in 2014.

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