Legislative Update, April 2nd

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

FRANKFORT – Late last year, just a few weeks before the General Assembly arrived at the Capitol, a legislative leader predicted the pandemic would “limit our ability to tackle a large number of issues.”  Another said he expected a “lean” agenda.

Never were more false words spoken.

For reasons both quite good and jaw-droppingly bad, there hasn’t been an odd-year meeting of the House and Senate as consequential as this since the first one was held in 2001.  Over the 30 working days my legislative colleagues and I met, there were no fewer than 15 major actions to take place, a blistering pace that felt more like four years of college crammed into a single semester.

April is Autism Awareness Month. My son was diagnosed with autism in 1998. I share my experiences as I call HR 77, a resolution recognizing April 2, 2021, as World Autism Awareness Day and April 2021 as National Autism Awareness Month.

We approved 202 bills – out of almost 900 filed – and in those thousands of pages were legislative power grabs; an austere one-year budget; a billion dollar-plus spending plan directing much of Kentucky’s federal stimulus money; a historic two-pronged attack on public education; criminal justice and voting reforms; a lifesaving cap on insulin prices; and a critical lifeline for our signature horse industry.

On top of that, the House prominently considered, and then thankfully rejected, a request to impeach Governor Beshear for having the audacity to protect Kentuckians during a worldwide health crisis.

A lengthy book could be written on what happened – and another on what will happen as a result.  Since that’s not feasible in this space, consider this more of a snapshot of “The Big Picture.”

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 did have a major impact on the legislature’s work.  It regrettably, if understandably, kept the public from attending meetings in the Capitol, and many legislators maintained the spirit of those safety protocols by voting from their office rather than in person.

The first round of bills to clear the General Assembly were also tied to the pandemic.  Several seek to limit a governor’s ability to act in prolonged emergencies, even though the Kentucky Supreme Court made clear last year that the Beshear Administration was justified in what is has done.  That same court will likely have the chance to rule again, since the governor has sued to stop several of the more egregious bills.

As it turned out, that legislative power grab was just the start.  Other similar bills now law will, among other things: 1.) Reduce the governor’s appointing power during a U.S. Senate vacancy; 2.) Keep the governor from re-organizing many parts of the Executive Branch; 3.) Severely diminish if not remove gubernatorial oversight of the Kentucky State Fair Board, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy; and 4.) Parcel out some of the governor’s powers to the Attorney General, the Agriculture Commissioner, and the Treasurer.

The Attorney General – an office that Republican House and Senate leaders looked upon less favorably when Governor Beshear held it – now has millions of dollars to hire new staff and can court-shop across the commonwealth when trying to strike down state actions rather than file suit in Franklin Circuit Court, where such cases have long been, and should still be, held.  In fact, similar legislation enacted this year also gives Kentuckians the same ability to bypass this court when filing suit against the state.

The General Assembly also gave itself final say, rather than the courts, when it comes to open-records requests for legislative information.  Agencies can now take longer to provide public records, and they can largely ignore those requests coming from out-of-state.  If sunlight is the best disinfectant, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and native Kentuckian) Louis Brandeis once said, this law is a cloak of darkness.

Financially, the General Assembly chose to reject Governor Beshear’s positive and prudent one-year budget proposal and instead largely enacted a continuation of the current fiscal year.  This is even though growth in state revenue is four times higher than the budget is based on.  Those numbers are poised to grow even faster because of the billions of dollars being injected into our economy from December’s and last month’s federal stimulus packages.

The upcoming budget will have no raises for state workers or school employees, or money for additional social workers and Kentucky State Police, or added help so more Kentuckians can get their associate’s degree.  It will however, have $75 million for film tax credits, $100 million for historic preservation credits, and potentially untold millions more to lure new workers here, but only if they work remotely for a company that otherwise has no presence in the commonwealth.

A couple of journalists started a trend of posting a haiku on the last day of the session which is designated as “sine die.” I tried to reflect on the major themes of the session when writing mine.

On the positive side, the budget also has $140 million to cover all-day kindergarten costs.  The state currently pays for half-day, but since most districts cover the other half, they will now be able to use this money to meet other needs.  The goal now is to make this permanent, because the legislature chose not to make this one-time appropriation an annual expense.

Unfortunately, what the General Assembly giveth, it can also take away.  We saw that with two far-reaching laws that will undermine public education for years to come.  One will set aside $25 million in a complicated tax scheme to make it easier for income-eligible students to use public money to attend private school – but only if they live in a county with at least 90,000 people.

Other income-eligible students will qualify for a share of this money to cover educational costs like tutoring.  Starting in the fall of 2022, meanwhile, all public-school students will have an easier time transferring to another public district, even across county lines. 

The start of next year is when those hired to teach will have to work longer for fewer guaranteed retirement benefits.  This is the first time in the retirement system’s 81-year history that career educators will get less for doing more, a move that will make it even tougher to address critical teaching shortages.

Other work done this legislative session will have a more positive impact.  That includes a bipartisan plan to spend hundreds of millions of federal dollars on improving access to broadband internet and clean drinking water.  Hundreds of millions of dollars more will help businesses by paying off the federal loan borrowed to cover the steep increase in the number of those receiving unemployment insurance.

Voting is another area where the legislature acted in a positive way.  For the first time ever, we will permanently have three early in-person voting days, and the popular online portal to request an absentee ballot will be available as well.  Counties will also be able to create voting centers that anyone registered to vote in the county can use.  Although I believe it should be even easier to vote – Kentucky still has some of the most restrictive laws in the country – this definitely moves us in the right direction.

There are several other notable laws that will help Kentuckians.  One will lower the prescription cost for insulin to $30 a month for those in state-regulated health insurance plans.  Another will create a new revenue stream to boost west Louisville, and there will also be money that will help rural hospitals keep their doors open.  Our horse industry also has a stronger legal foundation to protect the multi-billion-dollar, slots-like historical racing machines that were at risk of shutting down due to a court ruling last year.

The legislature did not ban no-knock search warrants as many of us had hoped in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death a little more than a year ago, but new and sensible restrictions will make tragedies like hers far less likely.  This law is the start, not the end, of our work in this area.

In other good news for the criminal justice system, felony theft and fraud limits will soon rise from $500 to $1,000, a move that reflects inflation and which will help reduce our overcrowded jails and prisons.  We also made it easier to help many felons re-integrate back into society after their time being incarcerated is over.

Finally, there are two other bills to pass whose outcome depends on what voters decide in November 2022.  One of those constitutional amendments would essentially give the General Assembly the ability to call itself into special session and meet for up to 12 additional days, while the other would state that abortion is not a right found in our state constitution, even though no state court has ruled that way.  This amendment is far more about politics than policy.

There is, as I mentioned, much more that could be said about these and many other laws, and the session won’t technically be over until Governor Beshear decides what to do with the bills sent to him this past Monday and Tuesday.  If he vetoes any of those, however, the legislature will have no chance to override that decision.

Midnight on March 30th, marking “sine die” which in Latin means “without day” and indicates that the 2021 session of the KY General Assembly is adjourning without assigning any days for future meetings. I often pause to appreciate the grandness of the Capitol and the history that lives within these walls.

Over the next two weeks, and periodically in the months ahead, I will look at what else we did and did not do during these extremely busy 30 meeting days.  In the meantime, I want to thank everyone who contacted me during this time, and I encourage you to keep that dialogue going.  Although the General Assembly’s work to enact laws is over for the year, House and Senate committees will begin holding monthly interim meetings in June to review issues affecting Kentucky and to start preparing for next year’s legislative session.            

You can always reach me by email at Tina.Bojanowski@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line – staffed each weekday by operators – 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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