Legislative Update, 2/23/2019

This week, the volume of phone messages and emails from voters and advocacy groups increased dramatically. On several bills, I received messages from voters asking me to support, and from others asking me to oppose. In the ethical code of conduct for psychologists, our first principle is to do good and not harm. I apply that same principle when making decisions about how to vote on legislation by asking myself if the bill would cause greater harm or greater good. Additional points in making decisions include listening to the views of those most affected by any given bill, as well as considering what role, if any, the legislature has to play in a given issue.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a major tax overhaul that caused a good deal of harm. I thank my predecessor and many of my current colleagues for their fierce opposition to the 2018 tax “reform” bill that raised taxes on 95% of working Kentuckians, even as it lowered taxes on major corporations by hundreds of millions of dollars. This harmful bill was presented and passed on the very same day.

Among other harms caused by this rushed legislation was a big financial hit to non-profit organizations that lost several long-held exemptions. On Thursday, the House moved to correct that mistake by passing HB 354 with a 96-4 vote. While the bill exempts nonprofit organizations from sales tax on admissions and on their first $10,000 in sales, it also sneaked in an additional corporate giveaway. I voted in favor of the bill, but it was not as easy a decision as it would have been if we had been presented with a “clean” bill.

There were several good bills passed out of the House this week including HB 158, which passed with a 99-0 vote. The bill would create a foster child’s “bill of rights,” a list of 16 rights for our nearly 10,000 Kentucky children in foster care, that include rights to adequate food, clothing, shelter, and the right to a safe, stable family. The bill would also require national and state background checks on child residential home and placement agency staff as required under new federal law.

House Bill 64 also passed overwhelmingly, and would let pharmacists dispense an emergency prescription refill for maintenance drugs, such as insulin, without prior authorization by a physician. Removing the barrier of prior authorization could mean the difference between life and death for those in critical need. As a member of the Health and Family Services Committee, it was powerful to hear testimony from those most affected.

House Bill 180 could also be a lifesaver for veterans with PTSD or who are otherwise at risk and have been reported missing. If it becomes law, local authorities would be able to activate the Golden Alert system currently used to make the public aware of a missing adult with a mental impairment. For veterans who fall under this new category, this would be known as a Green Alert.

Also this week, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill to provide needed financial relief to public universities, public health departments, and critically-needed repairs to state parks.

On the question of topics suitable for legislative action, I opposed HB 166 that would establish “A Day of Prayer for Kentucky’s Students.” In my comments on the House floor, I stated that I do not oppose prayer (which is, in any case, fully protected under the Constitution), but that I oppose the legislating of prayer by politicians. The bill passed 79-18.

Last week marked the final day to file bills, and I’ve sponsored two additional bills – HB 438 and HB485 – to address sexual harassment and assault prevention in K-12 and higher education settings.

Highlights of the past week include the annual African American History program in the rotunda, visits from UofL STEM scholars, the KY Arts Council, and advocates for families faced with the challenges of patient care for Alzheimers, as well as the many individuals and groups who came to the Capitol last week to share their stories and concerns.

We are now in the second half of the 30-day 2019 session, with just 13 legislative days remaining. A shorter calendar will mean longer days trying to find compromises on numerous bills. As always, please keep visiting, calling and emailing to let me know your views.

Legislative Update, 2/16/2019

We were back in full swing this week, with a number of bills moving out of committee and onto the House floor. The committee structure is really important, since that’s where much of the substantive work is done on the bills that will eventually be signed in to law.

The Kentucky House has 16 standing committees that consider legislation. The three that I serve on are Education; Health and Family Services; and Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protections (VMAPP). All of the committees have many bills referred to them, but the committee chairs have a good deal of discretion about which bills will actually be placed on the committees’ agenda for discussion and consideration. Many of the bills that are filed during the session never get to a committee hearing.

An important bill that did pass through committee this week is HB60, a bipartisan anti-sexual harassment bill that would make our Capitol a safer place to work and to serve. A smoking ban for K-12 public schools, HB11, has also sailed easily out of committee. HB11 is broadly supported by numerous health advocates and advocacy groups, and would improve the health and economic outcomes for our students, and improve the public health outcomes of our state. I’m hopeful that both of these bills will get a hearing and a yes vote so that they can head over to the Senate for consideration in that chamber.

Looking to the week ahead, I expect that the education committee will have hearings on SB1, a school safety bill, and HB202, a bill that would ban corporal punishment in our public schools. I also expect to be presenting HB323 in the VMAPP committee, a bill that would ease barriers to employment for military spouses when they move from one state to another.

It has been interesting to have a close-up seat to how legislation evolves through the democratic process. I received a LOT of input this week from voters – overwhelmingly opposing but a few supporting – on SB100, a bill expected to have a significant impact on Kentucky’s budding solar energy industry. I voted no on the bill, and while it did pass the House, the version of SB100 that passed the House was drastically different from the version passed by the Senate. The next step with this controversial piece of legislation will be for members of a conference committee to work together to try and hammer out the differences. While the process can be messy, this is actually how our democracy is designed to work – bringing diverse voices and perspectives together, and sitting down together to find a way forward.

Another bill to come out of committee on Thursday is actually on track to be the first sent to the Governor for his signature. This is a simple bill, but an important one since it would increase public transparency by requiring electronic filing of all campaign finance reports. This change would speed up the process to get information online and available to voters. Most of these reports are now filed on paper, which takes time and resources for election officials to enter manually. If this bill becomes law, it will take effect during the 2020 primary.

Although debate from opposing sides is built into the legislative process, there are other moments where there is broad consensus. We saw an ideal example of that on Tuesday, when House and Senate members from both parties came together to announce the formation of the Engage & Empower Caucus. This caucus is designed to serve as a focal point for legislation that would help the estimated 874,000 Kentuckians with a disability. With big thanks to co-chairs Representative Al Gentry (D-Jefferson) and Rep. Brandon Reed (R-Green, Larue, Marion), I was deeply honored to be invited to serve as one of the inaugural members of the new caucus. Among legislation that the Engage & Empower Caucus will promote this year is a bill to help people with disabilities retrofit their homes, and bills that would increase health insurance coverage for prosthetics and durable medical equipment.

One of the best aspects of legislative sessions is the sheer number of people who visit the Capitol. There have already been thousands who have come to support or oppose a bill,or just to make legislators more aware of causes important to them. This week we saw students advocating for increased support with career and technical education, and heard from community members advocating to end the dangerous practice of conversion therapy, along with folks representing many other causes. 
On Thursday, there was a rally in the Capitol Rotunda in support of affordable housing. Kentucky has a much higher percentage of people who struggle to find a place to live within their budget, but such organizations as Habitat for Humanity and the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky are making a profound difference when it comes to improving those numbers.

Wednesday was Kentucky’s 15th annual Children’s Advocacy Day, which focuses on improving the overall well-being of our youngest Kentuckians. Some of the proposals highlighted include limiting the skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes among adolescents and young adults; providing more mental-health professionals in our schools who can recognize and treat behavioral issues early on; and doing more to help young adults transitioning out of foster care.

In the week ahead, we reach the halfway point of the 30-day session, so the pace to approve bills is set to quicken. We will wrap up much of our work by mid-March and complete the session by the end of that month.

Legislative Update, 2/9/2019

The 2019 regular session resumed this past Tuesday, with days 5-8 of this year’s 30-day session. We will continue to meet throughout February and early March, then break for several Veto Days. Between now and the end of the session in late March, we can expect a flurry of activity!

Relatively few votes were taken last week, but this was an important time for committees to meet, to meet with constituents and advocates, and to solidify priorities. To that end, the House Democratic Women’s Caucus met this week, and adopted several bills as our shared priorities. 
These are:

HB 112 – to provide state funding for public pre-K.

HB 113 – to provide state funding for public Kindergarten. (Currently, the state only funds ½ day Kindergarten, with most local districts picking up the balance.)

HB 23 – to eliminate the “pink tax,” or sales tax on necessary feminine hygiene products.

HB 126 – to increase transparency and accountability in the oversight of Kentucky’s public pensions.

HB 83 – to increase protections against sexual harassment in the State Capitol.

The Health and Family Services Committee unanimously passed two very positive bills that will be on tomorrow’s consent agenda for a vote in the full House. HB 11 is a statewide smoking ban on public school campuses. HB 121 would eliminate the requirement for insurance companies to authorize the prescribing of life-saving anti-addiction drugs such as methadone. There are too many stories of death by drug overdoses during time-consuming prior authorization periods. I’m hopeful that HB121 will move quickly through the House and Senate and be signed in to law before one more life is lost.

Senate Bill 1 – the school safety bill that is top priority for both House and Senate leadership – unanimously passed out of the Senate last week, and will be heading to the House for action on that side. I was dismayed to read that, in the new version of SB1, licensed mental health professionals have been eliminated from the Bill language. I have no doubt that SB1 is well-intended, but this was a change in the wrong direction! The good news is that there appears to be willingness to continue making adjustments to the policy.

In other news, we learned on Friday that Rep. Jim Glenn of Owensboro will be allowed to serve his complete term following his opponent’s decision to drop an election contest. You may remember that Rep. Glenn won his seat by a single vote last November. The election was certified both locally and statewide by election officials, and Rep. Glenn was sworn in and assigned to committees.

The election contest was brought before the House last month, in part because more than a dozen absentee ballots were rejected in November (by a bipartisan elections panel) because they did not meet statewide standards. A recount a little more than a week ago showed Rep. Glenn did indeed win the race, but after some of the ballots that had been rejected were accepted, the outcome was a tie. Fortunately, Friday’s events put an end to this issue.

This week also brought us the Governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech. The Governor appears to have shifted into campaign mode by staying away from bomb-throwing and insults, and focusing instead on issues that we can all agree on: improving school safety, addressing the opioid epidemic, and increasing adoptions of the nearly 10,000 young people currently in the state’s foster care system. The tone is certainly a welcome shift, although the speech was short on vision or economic policy to genuinely address these very real challenges.

On the economic front, we did receive some good news last week. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture reported to the House Agriculture Committee that it has approved requests by farmers to grow as many as 42,000 acres of industrial hemp in 2019. That’s up from 16,000 acres last year and just 33 acres in 2014, the first year the crop could be grown in Kentucky. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this growth area for our state!

And the Kentucky Distillers Association reported that the number of distilleries in the state and the value of their spirits have tripled over the past decade. The payroll for those working in the industry now tops $1 billion, and there were 1.4 million people who visited the Bourbon Trail in 2018 – nearly four times as many as in 2009.

I will keep you updated on these and many other issues facing the General Assembly, and I encourage you to keep letting me know your thoughts as well. Your calls, emails, letters and in-person visits are so important.

Legislative Update, 2/2/2019

Week 3 of the 3-week recess is behind us, and Part II of the Legislative Session begins this Tuesday, gaveling in at 4:00.

My focus as a State Rep during the recess has been to meet with constituents, read up on bills, and provide opportunities for engagement.

To that end, I was glad to co-host a Legislative Town Hall this past Wednesday, along with State Representative Mary Lou Marzian and Democratic Leader State Senator Morgan Mcgarvey. We were heartened by the great turn-out, especially given the bitter cold that evening! We are hoping to offer at least one more Town Hall event before this year’s short session comes to a close.

There was good discussion and engagement around our public pensions, with Sen. McGarvey giving a thorough report-out from his participation on the bipartisan Public Pensions Working Group. We also had a chance to discuss HB 126, a bill I’ve sponsored that would increase transparency and accountability in the oversight of our public pensions. That bill has been assigned to the House State Government Committee.

We also discussed SB1 and HB1, the twin “School Safety and Resiliency” bills, that are the top priority of both chambers of the General Assembly. While there is much to applaud in the bills, there are some areas to be concerned about, including a proposed requirement for every school in the Commonwealth to hire or contract with an armed law enforcement officer. The bills, as currently drafted, would require the hiring of more than 3 times as many law enforcement officers than licensed mental health professionals.

On that topic, I participated in a KET-TV hosted Live Town Hall that was recorded last week, and will air on February 11th at 8pm.

Also last week, I attended a Community Noise Forum meeting, hosted bi-monthly at Airport Authority. I’ll take this opportunity to give a shout-out to Representative Jeff Donohue and State Representative McKenzie Cantrell for sponsoring HB 122, an act relating to tax credits to homeowners for airport noise mitigation. This good policy actually passed both the House and Senate in 2016, only to be vetoed by the Governor. The bill has been referred to the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. I encourage you to contact the Legislative Message Line and to leave messages for the Chair and members of that committee if you would like to see the bill get a hearing this year.

Rounding out some of last week’s highlights, several members of the women’s Jefferson County delegation spent a great hour+ with University of Louisville President Neeli Bendapudi in a free exchange of questions and ideas, and heard about the new UofL strategic plan, and Dr. Neeli’s vision of putting students first, while benefiting our local community and the Commonwealth as a whole.

And finally, a quick note from the House Democratic Women’s Caucus. At our organizing meeting a couple of weeks ago, there was unanimous concern from our members about the harsh limitations placed on public access to the people’s State Capitol building. We were told that barriers to public access were a result of safety recommendations from the State Police and Kentucky Firefighters, and that supporting documents would be made available upon request. Although the Women’s Caucus formally requested those documents more than three weeks ago, none have been provided to date. I will continue to keep you posted on how this progresses.