Legislative Update, March 26th

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

FRANKFORT – When it comes to the checks and balances built into our form of government, few draw as much attention as the veto.

Meaning “I forbid” in Latin, it has a long history in the United States, with President Washington issuing the first two of what now exceeds 2,500 vetoes at the federal level.  President Franklin Roosevelt alone was responsible for a fourth of those.

The chief executives of our state governments also have veto powers, although North Carolina’s didn’t have that authority until 1996.  While the overall concept is the same across the country, there are some significant differences in the way gubernatorial vetoes are carried out and how they are then handled by state legislatures.

Like Congress, most states require two-thirds of their legislators to override a veto, and a few others set the limit at three-fifths.  Kentucky, however, is one of just six states that only requires a simple majority of those elected.  For us, that threshold is 51 in the House and 20 in the Senate.

Our legislative sessions have a 10-day veto recess built into them, since that is the time the state constitution gives governors to sign or reject legislation or to let it become law without a signature.  The governor also has the authority to issue line-item vetoes, but only in budgetary matters, a power our presidents lack.

I spent the veto period teaching my special education students (so excited to be back in-person!) and gathering answers from public educators, stakeholders, and scholars on Rep. Petrie’s questions about public school funding.

Since the General Assembly voted for several high-profile bills early this year, Gov. Beshear issued eight vetoes before the veto recess, and all of them were overridden.  The fate of three of those, which deal mainly with the governor’s state of emergency powers, is now in the hands of the courts.

Governor Beshear had until Saturday to make a final decision on what to do with the more than 150 bills sent to him earlier this month. He signed about 120 from that batch into law; let nine others become law without his signature; and vetoed 26 others, including six budget bills that were just partially rejected.  On Monday and Tuesday this week, the legislative session’s final two days, the General Assembly will decide whether to let the vetoes stand.

My hope is that my colleagues and I will keep the vetoes in place, since these bills generally move Kentucky in the wrong direction.  Two of the more prominent would have a negative and lasting impact on our public schools.

House Bill 563 would do that by siphoning away $25 million in tax dollars to cover certain academic costs for income-eligible families.  That includes private-school tuition – but only in counties with 90,000 or more people – and other services and materials like tutoring and school uniforms.  Starting in the fall of 2022, this bill would also make it much easier for public-school students to transfer easily to another public district, even across county lines.

Proponents call this “choice,” but the reality is that it leaves little choice for schools that could put that $25 million to much better use and for districts that could face dire situations if they have an exodus of students.  We also should not be setting aside so much money when the budget doesn’t include an extra cent in per-pupil funding or for new textbooks.

If there is a silver lining, it is that this bill was approved with fewer than 51 votes in the House and just one more than needed for a constitutional majority in the Senate, raising hope that this veto will be sustained. (Update: The veto for HB563 was overridden and the bill was sent to the Senate.)

It will be tougher to do that with House Bill 258, which is on track to create a new retirement tier for teachers hired in 2022 and beyond.  Legislative leaders say this move is needed despite the facts that it will not have any impact on the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System’s long-term liability and will make it tougher to attract our best and brightest to this profession (The veto for HB258 was overridden as well.)

Some of the other bills Governor Beshear has vetoed in recent days seek to take away his office’s powers.  Senate Bill 228, for example, changes a nearly 80-year-old law that gives governors the ability to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy until the next even-year general election.  If this change is enacted, governors would be limited to filling the vacancy with someone from the same party as the departing senator, and there will be changes to how voters choose the departing senator’s successor.

Senate Bill 65, meanwhile, seeks to make Kentucky the only state that takes away federal SNAP food benefits from non-custodial parents who are delinquent in their child support.  This could have repercussions on other children in the non-custodial parent’s house, and doing this at a time when the pandemic has caused many to be unemployed or underemployed is particularly harsh.

House Bill 272 would take away the Public Service Commission’s authority to continue its moratorium on late water fees, even after the agency showed that last year’s moratorium did not reduce the percentage of customers paying their bills on time.  The late fee also complicates assistance programs in place to help families who are struggling.

House Bill 518 takes away much of the governor’s appointing power in determining who sits on the State Fair Board and gives it to the Agriculture Commissioner, while Senate Bill 165 would have the state Treasurer deciding the fate of state contracts disputed by a legislative review committee.  Both of these bills, as well as others limiting the governor’s appointments, are far more about politics than good government.

In addition to considering vetoes, the House and Senate will almost certainly vote on a handful of other bills on Monday and Tuesday that weren’t considered before the veto recess.  That includes proposals to limit if not ban no-knock search warrants, implementing new tax cuts that have had little scrutiny and making changes – some needed, some not – to how Metro Louisville is governed.

In these cases, Governor Beshear would have final authority to decide whether to let these bills become law, because the legislature will not have another chance to override any vetoes.

I will update you further next week on what takes place during these final two meeting days.  In the meantime, please continue letting me know your thoughts and concerns about issues affecting state government.

My email is Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line 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.  You can also read bills and see our votes on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov.

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