Legislative Update, Feb. 5, 2021

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Tina Bojanowski

FRANKFORT – When the General Assembly arrived at the Capitol early last month, it was widely assumed that several of this year’s highest-profile bills would wind up in court. That belief became reality early this past week, when the House and Senate over-rode Gov. Beshear’s vetoes and he immediately sued to block enactment of efforts designed to make it tougher for him and future governors to address pandemics like COVID-19.

It is too soon to say what the final legal outcome will be, but the Kentucky Supreme Court made it clear last year that a governor has wide latitude to address a public-health emergency.  Prior court rulings have also re-affirmed constitutional limits designed to keep the Legislative Branch from micro-managing the Executive Branch.

These bills, all of which I strongly opposed, would do three things: First, they essentially would require CDC guidelines – nearly 200 altogether – to supersede any more stringent public health orders designed to keep the coronavirus in check.  The leader of that agency has said the guidelines are meant to advise government leaders, not be a one-size-fits-all policy for the country.

In his order temporarily stopping this bill, the Franklin County circuit judge wrote that this legislation could “create chaos and undermine any effective enforcement of public health standards to prevent the spread of this deadly disease during the pandemic.” The other two bills would limit a governor’s emergency orders to 30 days, an impossibility in a pandemic, and make it more difficult for the Executive Branch to adopt emergency administrative regulations. 

Governor Beshear and I discussing the possible consequences of HB1. In the background, each flag represents a Kentuckian who has died of Covid-19.

While we wait to see what happens next, the Kentucky House of Representatives took on another issue this past week that would have far-reaching and deeply troubling consequences in another way.

In this case, House Bill 258 is little more than a slap in the face of the teaching profession, which has done so much for so many for so long.  That has never been truer since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago.

In a span of less than five hours, this bill cleared the House State Government Committee and then the entire House, a move reminiscent of 2018’s “sewer” bill that sought to drastically reduce retirement benefits for teachers.  That legislation drew thousands of opponents to the Capitol, and its secretive nature was the foundation for its defeat in the Kentucky Supreme Court.

This year’s bill would not affect current teachers or retirees, but it would change retirement for those hired in 2022 and beyond by creating a hybrid system.  While that new plan would still be managed by the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System, it also would be a sea change for an agency that has served teachers for more than 80 years. The analysis of this bill wasn’t even available until the night before the House vote.  What it shows is that these new teachers would see their retirement benefits drop by more than $3.5 billion over the next 30 years.  That’s $119 million a year taken out of their pockets.

What makes this quick action even worse is that the public is unable to be in the Capitol because of COVID-19 restrictions.  If the sponsors think this is a good idea – it’s not – then it should be able to withstand scrutiny.  The legislative process is intended to be deliberate, not a fly-by-night operation designed to keep people in the dark until it’s too late to be heard.

It is important to emphasize that teachers do not receive Social Security.  In addition, nearly nine of 10 retired teachers still call Kentucky home, and their combined benefits top $2 billion a year, making their pensions a major economic boost for the commonwealth. Many schools are already facing critical teaching shortages, and this will make that challenge even more difficult.  Instead of reducing benefits, we should be looking for ways to boost teacher pay.

Here is a link to my floor speech explaining my “no” vote for HB258: https://fb.watch/3uCDYVkI_4/

Not all of the legislative news this past week was negative.  In fact, thanks to the Kentucky House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the House now has 21 bills before it that would greatly improve maternal and infant health here in Kentucky. While we have made massive strides in these areas over the past century, the truth is that a woman in the United States is more than twice as likely now to die from pregnancy-related complications as in 1987.  Our country is 55th in this category and last among wealthy nations, and Kentucky’s rate is two-and-a-half times worse than the national average. The maternal death rate for Black pregnant women in the United States, meanwhile, is three to four times higher than it is for non-Hispanic white women, another unacceptable gap.

These bills would do such things as have Medicaid cover the cost of doulas and midwives, both of which play integral roles in helping families bring home their newest members.  There is strong evidence that these professionals make a profound difference when it comes to reducing birth complications.

Other legislation would call on health insurers to allow special enrollment for pregnant women, which in turn would give them better access to prenatal care; and extend Medicaid post-partum coverage up to a year, which recognizes the fact that issues can arise long after a birth.

There are also proposals to exempt breastfeeding supplies from the sales tax and to have them covered by health insurance, and others are designed to better spot and then treat any issues affecting mental health.

These are the types of bills that the General Assembly should be focusing on, not bills that put us more at risk of becoming sick from COVID-19 or that hurt the teaching profession.

Speaking about HB289, the Kentucky Child Mental Health Services Access Program. Youth suicide, the second leading cause of death for youth in KY, is a public health crisis. HB289 will help front-line practitioners with the information and resources they need to support families of children with mental health concerns.

I would like to hear your thoughts on these and other issues before the legislature.  You can email me at Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, while the toll-free message line for me or any other legislator is 1-800-372-7181.  I’m on social media as well. My Twitter handle is @tinaforkentucky and my Facebook page is State Representative Tina Bojanowski.

The General Assembly’s website is legislature.ky.gov, and you can see videos of our committee and House and Senate meetings by searching for “Kentucky legislative streaming.”

I hope to hear from you soon.

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