A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – With winter weather gripping most of the commonwealth this past week, House and Senate leaders understandably chose to postpone the four days the General Assembly was scheduled to meet. This brief break arrived just shy of the legislative session’s halfway point, which makes it an ideal time to review what has happened, what is likely to happen and, just as importantly, what should happen before my colleagues and I wrap up our work late next month.
Traditionally, a legislative session’s most noteworthy bills are passed in its final days, but the script has truly been flipped this year. During the opening week, in fact, House and Senate leaders rushed through their biggest priority: a slate of unnecessary bills designed to make it tougher for Governor Beshear and those succeeding him to address long-term emergencies like COVID-19.
Those bills are now in court, and the judge has said he expects to rule on this dispute in the coming days. This matter almost certainly won’t be finalized, though, until the Kentucky Supreme Court weighs in.
It was another of that court’s decisions – this one from last fall putting historical horse racing machines at risk – that led to the quick passage of another consequential bill. In this one, we clarified that these slot-like machines do fall under the state’s pari-mutuel law, which should address the court’s concerns.
Many of my fellow House members and I agree that the formula directing the machines’ net proceeds needs to benefit state spending more. The machines have had $10 billion wagered in them over the last nine-plus years, but the state has received less than $60 million. There was hope the formula could be changed this year, but a constitutional hurdle making financial decisions tougher to enact in odd-year legislative sessions is a key reason why this will have to wait until 2022.
That constitutional hurdle was put in place because Kentucky still operates under a two-year budget cycle. Like most things, COVID-19’s arrival last March upended this as well, meaning that the legislature is taking budgeting one year at a time this biennium.
The good news is that state revenues are actually doing far better than we would have imagined nearly a year ago. The budget Governor Beshear proposed last month reflects that optimism, but it is too soon to say what the final version will contain.
Unfortunately, these major spending decisions are being made behind closed doors, with little input from the minority party. It’s likely the state budget will be made public on the same day it is passed by the House and Senate, which is exactly what we saw happen in 2018.
That secrecy keeps Kentuckians in the dark until it’s too late for them to even know what impact legislation at hand will have on their lives.
This undemocratic trend is happening with other bills, too. Earlier this month, for example, the House voted on a major teacher retirement bill less than two hours after it had cleared committee.
We could see that process repeat itself this coming week, when House leaders are expected to announce legislation making significant changes to how we vote.
Last year’s election modifications proved to be models for other states and the reason we saw record turnout despite the pandemic. Kentuckians clearly liked having multiple days and ways to vote, and I believe that should be the standard for all elections. It’s likely, though, that expanded use of absentee ballots will not continue because of false information at the national level that they are somehow easily manipulated, even though there is little proof of that.
Many of my fellow House Democratic Caucus members and I announced sensible voting reforms last year, but those bills have gained little traction since the start of the legislative session. In fact, almost none of our bills have even made it to committee, meaning they currently can’t even be debated, much less voted on.
Many are proposals that have bipartisan support and the backing of many Kentuckians. Those include strengthening our beleaguered unemployment insurance system; improving Kentucky’s too-high rates of maternal and infant mortality; raising the state’s minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased since 2009; approving medical marijuana, which is now legal in 36 states; and authorizing sports wagering, which is now legal in 25 states.
Some criminal-justice reforms are slowly moving ahead, but the bigger ones have not budged any. That includes Breonna’s Law, which would ban no-knock search warrants and increase body-camera use by law enforcement, and a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to most felons after they complete their sentence. Although Gov. Beshear’s 2019 executive order granting voting rights to many helped immensely, the fact remains that only a constitutional amendment can make this permanent.
These and other proposals deserve to be heard. Without them, many Kentuckians will continue to needlessly suffer, and all of us will see a brighter future curtailed. That’s not right.
One way to change that is through calls and emails from people like you. You can reach me by writing to Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, and the same email format works for all 138 legislators. There is also a toll-free message line staffed each weekday by operators. You can leave messages for one legislator or all of them by calling 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.
Bills and votes can be found on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov, while KET and the legislature’s YouTube page broadcast all committee meetings and House and Senate debates. You can find those by searching for “Kentucky legislative streaming.”
I hope to hear from you soon. With just 16 working days left, time is drawing short to turn these proposals into law.