A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly
with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – The first eight days of this year’s legislative session will always be remembered for the dividing line they figuratively painted down the middle of the Capitol. During that time, one side argued for limiting the governor’s ability to handle emergencies like COVID-19 and to reduce that office’s day-to-day authority in other ways, while the other side – the one I’m on – believed those proposals go too far and that Gov. Beshear should be applauded for his work to save lives during the pandemic.
We’ll resolve these matters when other legislators and I return to Frankfort on Feb. 2nd. While I support the governor’s vetoes, the House and Senate are nonetheless expected to override them. Gov. Beshear has promised to take the matter to the courts, which will ultimately decide where the balance of power should be.
While these bills and the one-year state budget we’ll soon vote on will be what this year’s legislative session is most remembered for, it is important to emphasize that there are actually some broad areas where there is bipartisan agreement. The hope is that, this year, there will be enough support to turn these ideas into law.
In 2020, for example, more than half of the House of Representative sponsored – and then voted for – legislation that would legalize medical marijuana. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states have now made this possible, putting the commonwealth in a quickly shrinking minority. There are two potential barriers in this year’s attempt. One, a fourth of the Kentucky House is newly elected, so it’s not yet clear how these members will vote, and Senate leaders have not indicated they have changed their opposition.
Another major proposal with medical implications also cleared the House last year and will hopefully make it to the governor’s desk before spring arrives. The goal in this case is to cap insurance costs for insulin so that diabetics only have to pay $25 to $30 a month for this life-saving drug. Roughly a half-million Kentuckians have diabetes, and those needing insulin have seen its costs skyrocket into hundreds of dollars for a 30-day supply. Eleven states have now authorized cost caps for insulin, including two right next to us: West Virginia and Illinois. I’m really hoping we can add Kentucky to that list soon.
Two other bills that bring together a sizable number of Democrats and Republicans are legalizing sports wagering and expanded gaming. Here, the divide is not so much along party lines as it is a split between urban and rural areas.
Since a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened up sports wagering to any state, about 25 have decided to take advantage of it, including five of the seven surrounding us. Here in Kentucky, it could generate at least $20 million in tax revenue. While that is relatively small when measured against a multi-billion dollar budget, there’s no doubt it could be put to good use to help our schools or other needed programs.
Expanded gaming faces longer odds, but it offers the potential for even more revenue if approved. This one, however, is complicated by the fact that a recent Kentucky Supreme Court ruling has jeopardized historical-racing machines already here in the commonwealth. They operate much like slot machines, but use the outcomes of old horse races to determine winners. If the General Assembly does not change the law in response to the ruling, a $2 billion-a-year industry could be at risk. If we do make legislative changes, though, I believe we need to look more closely at how much the state receives from these machines. Right now, the fund we use for general expenses only gets about one-half of one cent of every dollar wagered, a tiny fraction compared to what states with more traditional casinos receive.
There are several other areas that could, or should, get bipartisan support this legislative session. One is making many of last year’s early voting changes permanent. While they were put in place in response to COVID-19, voters should always, among other things, be able to vote days before an election and to request an absentee ballot without needing an excuse.
Two other perennial proposals that have wide support among Kentuckians would raise the state’s minimum wage, which hasn’t changed since 2009, and give voters a chance to approve a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to most felons after they complete every aspect of their sentence. A December 2019 executive order by Gov. Beshear restored these voting rights to many, but it will take an amendment to make it permanent.
Other criminal justice reforms I believe should pass would end use of no-knock search warrants by law enforcement and raise felony theft limits, something that could help reduce the strain on overcrowded prisons and jails.
With only 22 working days left in this year’s legislative session, there’s limited time to address these and potentially dozens of other ideas. The General Assembly showed it could move quickly to limit the governor’s powers, however, so there’s nothing stopping it from acting just as fast on matters that actually have a majority of Kentuckians’ support.
I would like to hear your views on what you would you think should become law. I’ll be on the following committees this year: Education, Transportation, Small Business & Information Technology, and Economic Development & Workforce Investment. If there is a bill you are interested in, you can check to see what committee it has been assigned to on the legislature website below. Note that there has been a rule change this year and bills are not required to be sent to a committee within any specific time frame.
You can email me at Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, or you can call the toll-free message line for legislators at 1-800-372-7181. It’s available during normal business hours each weekday. I’m on social media as well. My Twitter handle is @tinaforkentucky and my Facebook page is State Representative Tina Bojanowski.
You can read these bills as well by visiting the General Assembly’s website at legislature.ky.gov.