A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Tina Bojanowski
FRANKFORT – Perhaps the best way to describe this past week’s legislative session is to recall one of the most famous opening lines of all time: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Charles Dickens was not referring to the General Assembly when he wrote this beginning to “A Tale of Two Cities,” but his words nonetheless capture the ups and downs taking place at the Capitol.
Interestingly, the most noteworthy action was inaction. After more than 17 hours of meeting over a matter of weeks, most of that behind closed doors, the state House’s impeachment committee ultimately decided late Tuesday not to recommend impeaching either Governor Andy Beshear or Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
Impeachment in Kentucky is rare, occurring only a handful of times in our history and just once in the modern era. That was in the early 1990s following the criminal conviction of the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, who had just been sentenced to a year in jail.
No charges, much less a conviction, were involved this time, of course. In Gov. Beshear’s case, the impeachment petition was about how he has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, even though public surveys have given him high marks; the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled his actions were legal; and the steps he’s taken have largely mirrored what other governors have done.
It is important to note that an impeachment request is like a lawsuit: Anyone can file it at any time. That is a low bar for such a major action, which is why most of the petitions over the years have been duly considered as required and quietly filed away.
Impeachment should not be used because of political or policy disagreements, and I hope these requests do not become a regular occurrence. Those considering filing one, however, should know that, if they are unsuccessful, they have to pay costs that could potentially reach into the thousands of dollars.
Putting impeachment aside was not the only positive thing the House did last week. It also approved about a dozen bills that easily fit in the “best of times” category.
Arguably the biggest of those is House Bill 95, which would tackle sky-rocketing insulin prices that far outpace manufacturing costs. This has hit Kentucky particularly hard, given we have one of the nation’s highest rates of diabetes. Many Kentuckians are often having to choose between food and medicine, and many are going without, putting them at greater risk of losing their vision or a limb or having to go on dialysis.
This legislation will cap prescription costs at $30 a month, and it would put Kentucky among a growing number of states taking similar steps.
Another significant bill sent to the Senate would make some of last year’s temporary voting changes permanent. This includes having several days of early in-person voting and allowing counties to have voting centers available to anyone in the county registered to the vote.
Speaking of voting, the House this past week also backed the creation of a new task force focused on election integrity. We all want secure elections, but it is worth noting that we already have a legislative committee focused on this issue. I’m hoping this is not being formed because of the false belief that there was widespread voter fraud in November’s election.
Other positive legislation to clear the House is more targeted in whom it benefits. One bill, for example, would make it easier for those in the National Guard to afford adoption costs. Another would align leave benefits for adoptive and birth parents so that they are treated equally by employers, as long as the adopted child is nine or younger.
We propose making it easier for firefighters to receive mental-health benefits if they are suffering from PTSD or similar trauma due to their job, and we want to make sure living-organ donors are not penalized by health insurers for their charitable actions. We also sought to permanently expand telehealth options that have proven to be quite effective during the pandemic.
The House backed legislation to have our schools return at least part time to in-person learning by the end of March — most districts are already doing this – and two other bills expand opportunities for graduating high school seniors to use their lottery-based KEES scholarships.
These and similar bills would have been enough to cap a busy week, but there were unfortunately a half-dozen or more that would move Kentucky in the wrong direction.
One sent to Gov. Beshear for his signature would create a new legislative investigating committee with subpoena power. While the General Assembly has an oversight role, this clearly encroaches on the work already done by the criminal justice system, the Attorney General, and the Auditor and could be driven more by politics than fact-finding.
Three bills to pass the House – or are expected to soon – would needlessly take away the governor’s powers. Two would transfer some of that power to the Agriculture Commissioner by giving that office more authority over the State Fair Board and, oddly, broadband internet expansion. The third would limit re-organization of the Kentucky State Board of Education. These are on top of other power grabs that began last year and were prominent during the early days of this year’s session.
If diminishing the governor’s powers isn’t enough, the House is set to do the same for Metro Louisville as well, by reducing the length of time that city’s mayor can serve while also making that office non-partisan – even as Metro Council candidates would remain partisan, a confusing dynamic no other large community in the country has. At a minimum, these major changes should be made by local voters.
Other bills moving forward would give the Attorney General more authority to go after protestors – something that would undermine local prosecutors and chill First Amendment rights – and that would add new limits when it comes to accessing public records.
None of these bills undermining the governor’s office or limiting public information are the foundation of good government. They’re only about gaining power. There is never a good time for these moves, but this is the last thing we should be doing during a pandemic. So far, many bills that actually would help Kentuckians are still waiting to get out of the gate.
Your input on these and other legislative matters is vital to the work I do, and I encourage you to contact me. My email is Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, while the toll-free message line for legislators 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. Bills and votes can be found on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov.