Legislative Update: Final Session Day

Quick wrap-up of #kyga19 final session day:

Good: Passed tobacco-free schools bill and employer accommodations for pregnant workers. Two important public health wins!

Bad: The process was as terrible as ever with bill substitutes and amendments coming to legislators at 10, 11pm on the final night of session. On really consequential issues. This simply must change.

Really bad: The worst of these bills to pass- nearly entirely along party lines, and late into the night – was a “conference report” version of a KERS public pension bill, formerly known as HB 358. The bill does provides some immediate short term relief to some employers, but pulls out essential Jenga blocks that could cause the system to collapse in the (maybe not so) long term. And violates the inviolable contract. And leaves taxpayers to foot an estimated bill of nearly $1B. Stay tuned as more information unfolds….

Bizarre: a Republican legislator sponsored a resolution to honor Gov Bevin’s legal team for their “outstanding work” in advancing demonstrably illegal anti-abortion laws, and for “saving taxpayer dollars.” Even as taxpayer dollars are being spent defending this reckless behavior. Even as I write.

Even more bizarre: not only did the Speaker countenance this really weird resolution, but stood silently by as the same resolution sponsor went on *at length* to compare abortion to slavery and the Holocaust, and to personally go after State Representative Attica Scott for that good representative’s past reasonable questioning of an unconstitutional abortion ban. Not acceptable on so many levels, but especially in a context where my colleagues and I are regularly gaveled down or publicly berated by majority party leadership.

So… that was my night!

And still… we will #Persist!

Legislative Update, 3/9/2019

Another wild ride in Frankfort this week! But compared to the onslaught of problematic legislation that flew through the House during the week prior, relatively little legislation was voted on this week, and the bills that were voted on were mainly noncontroversial.

Still, there are some very problematic bills hanging out there which still have an opportunity to pass during the next three legislative days when we re-convene next Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Those three days will take us through Day 29 of the 30 day session. After Thursday, we will recess for several days as we enter the Governor’s veto period. Then we come back for one final day on March 28th with the opportunity to legislatively override any vetoes.

This is my first session, but I have certainly observed as an outsider that a lot of mischief can happen in the final days of session. Last year’s teacher pension “Sewer Bill” is an example. Rushing bills through in the final days, attaching bad bills to otherwise good bills, is simply bad legislative process. It makes it very difficult for legislators to keep track of bills in any kind of meaningful way, and sets up enormous barriers to public input. We simply must do better.

In the meantime, the General Assembly has a long list of bills still awaiting final decision.

Several that generated headlines and public outcry this past week are education-related, and drew thousands of teachers to the Capitol to make their concerns and their voices heard. There are four bills of particular concern to educators, and to those of us who support public schools.

House Bill 525 would significantly alter how the board of trustees is selected for the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS), and would significantly reduce teacher voice. Teachers have long had the authority to nominate seven of the 11 trustees, but that would effectively drop to two under this bill. Most of the remaining nominations would be made by education-oriented organizations. KTRS is an outstanding retirement system that stands alongside some of the best in the country. As I said in last week’s wrap-up, HB 525 is a solution in search of a problem. The good news is that the legislation has not cleared the House by the end of the week, and it’s possible that we will run out the clock on this poorly-conceived legislation.

The same can be said of House Bill 205, which also has not been considered yet by the entire House. It would authorize up to $25 million in tax credits annually for those who donate to private elementary and secondary schools to boost scholarships. While the bill is promoted as being a help to poor families, that is simply not how this type of legislation has played out in other states, where the majority of scholarship funds went to students already attending private schools. The $25 million credit is predicted to grow in future years, at great cost to our meager public coffers. There are significant constitutional concerns about this legislation, in addition to the funding concerns for our public schools and other public services.

(For another perspective opposing HB 205, I encourage you to take a look at an op ed entitled “Why Catholics should oppose Kentucky private school tax bill,” posted elsewhere on my page. The piece was written by our past District 35 Representative, the Honorable Jim Wayne.)

Senate Bill 250 is an education bill that only applies to Jefferson County Public Schools. The section of the bill drawing the most public opposition is that it reduces the authority of Site Based Decision Making Councils in principal selection. In reality, superintendents already have tremendous authority over principal selection, and I share the concerns of many of the bill’s critics that it threatens teacher voice and parent input.

While these three bills are are still pending, a fourth – Senate Bill 8 – was sent to the Governor for his signature on Thursday. The bill overhauls the teacher tribunal process and diminishes public voice in hearings that are an important part of due process for teachers and other certified employees. I spoke against the bill on the House floor, and cast a no vote.

More bills to watch:

HB 354 would, among other things, fix a small portion of last year’s tax overhaul so that non-profit organizations would get back many if not all of the exemptions they lost last year. I opposed the 2018 tax changes which gave tax breaks to the wealthiest Kentuckians, and would like to see the entire tax structure overhauled. In the meantime, I believe we must offer some relief to our non-profits, which do so much for the people of the 35th district and across the state. But this is a bill I think we need to watch carefully for what could be added into it in the final days. In the end, this and the related HB 268 – which opens the budget for other projects – could turn out to be quite consequential.

Another innocuous-sounding but quite dangerous bill to watch is HB 254, a so-called “free speech” bill applying to public colleges. The bill does nothing to add to free speech protections already provided through our Constitution, but slides in a problematic definition of sexual harassment that would make it much more difficult for sexual assault victims to report. The Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs strongly opposes the bill.

In better news:

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved House Bill 136, a bill to legalize medical marijuana, putting us in line with more than 30 other states that have taken similar or more far-reaching steps. Time appears to have run out for the bill to pass this session, but this represents progress on the issue compared to prior sessions.

The very dangerous anti-transparency bills – SB 193 and HB 387 – that would have turned Kentucky’s important “sunshine” laws on their head, appear to be dead this session. That these bills were even filed in the first place is troubling enough. Let’s celebrate their demise!

If you would like to know more about these or other bills, please visit the General Assembly’s website at www.legislature.ky.gov. If you would like to add your voice to those supporting or opposing these measures, meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Although I’ve not been able to keep up with responses to all your messages, I assure you that I’m reading every one of them. Your voice matters.

Legislative Update, 3/2/2019

I’ve maintained equanimity in my past weeks’ legislative updates, but the dangerous legislation and the hypocrisy on full display in the House this week cannot go ignored or unmentioned.

On Wednesday, the House voted to approve SB1, an unfunded school safety bill that adds some mental health resources, but mainly focuses on “hardening the target” for mass shootings at schools. Then on Friday, the House voted 60-37 to pass SB 150, a bill to allow concealed carry of firearms without training or permit.

I was the first, but not the only House member, to point out the hypocrisy of congratulating ourselves one day for our commitment to keeping kids safe, while voting two days later on legislation that undermines safety. SB 150 completely eliminates the concealed carry permitting system that has, over the past 20 years, kept concealed firearms out of the hands of over 10,000 felons and domestic abusers in our state. While mass shootings in schools grab headlines as well as public focus and outrage over these horrible incidents, the truth is that 86% of childhood deaths by mass shooting occur not in schools or by the hand of strangers, but in family and domestic violence incidents. The passage of SB150 puts Kentucky children at additional risk.

Law enforcement agencies across the state – Louisville Metro Police Department, the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, and the state Fraternal Order of Police, among others– all opposed the passage of SB 150. In fact, even as the 2+-hour House debate over SB150 raged on, the state FOP was sending out its own messages warning of the bill’s potential “deadly consequences.” Still, 60 members of Kentucky’s House of Representatives, voted Yes on SB 150.

In the same day that SB 150 passed the House, Gov. Matt Bevin announced to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he will sign the bill in to law. His message to the thousands of Kentuckians who oppose the dismantling of responsible gun ownership? “And for those people who are offended at this idea and don’t like it, there are other places in America where they could live.” Despite the Governor’s call to “Love it or leave it,” my plan is to continue fighting and standing up for the safety and the common good of Kentuckians every single day.

While priority legislation being pushed by the majority party in both the House and Senate focuses on numerous wedge issues, there is little to no serious legislation to address real concerns of the people of the 35th district – the opioid crisis, aging public infrastructure, relief for working families, access to health care, disabilities issues, unprecedented numbers of children in foster care, retiree concerns, pension funding, funding for public schools, etc.

Meanwhile, good bills are being blocked, while legislation that would cause additional harm are being fast-tracked.

The arrival of hundreds of teachers at the Capitol last Thursday made it feel like 2018 all over again. They came to Frankfort to oppose yet another unfair and unnecessary bill directly affecting the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. Last year’s rallies were focused on current and future benefits, while this year’s is about the very governance of KTRS itself. Some say the bill making its way through the legislature now – HB 525 – could have a bigger impact than the public-pension “Sewer Bill” that was unanimously struck down in December by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

House Bill 525 is wrong for Kentucky, and is a solution in search of a problem. Educators oppose HB 525 because it significantly diminishes their role in determining the 11-member KTRS Board of Trustees. Teachers would see their current authority to nominate seven trustees reduced to two, with most of the remaining nominations coming from an array of educational organizations. Certified public accountants – who are not even backing this approach! – would have a seat on the board as well, even though current law already requires trustees with investment experience.

The final fate of HB 525 is still uncertain, given the relatively few remaining days left in this year’s legislative session. But as we saw with last year’s Sewer Bill, proposals like this that have the backing of the majority party in both the House and Senate have a way of moving quickly.

On one positive note, my colleagues and I unanimously voted for HB 60, a bipartisan bill to strengthen sexual harassment policies governing the Legislative Branch. My goals in running for the Kentucky House included finding ways to work in a bipartisan way to advance the common good, and to change the culture in Frankfort. HB 60 meets both goals. While the legislation is not perfect, it is a meaningful first step toward making our State Capitol a safer place – especially for women – to legislate, work, and visit.

Beyond legislation, it was an honor to participate in this year’s annual Rally for Fairness in Frankfort! With record numbers of co-sponsors for statewide Fairness, and the bill to ban the dangerous practice of conversion therapy, there is much to celebrate, even as we know there is still much work ahead.

As far as visitors, I had great conversations this week with groups of student advocates from Marion C. Moore, and from Mercy Academy. These social justice champions are on a path to change the world!

So far, only a relatively small number of bills have been sent to the Governor to be signed in to law, but we can expect for that to change this week and next. As the General Assembly makes final decisions on what will become law, and what will wait another year, I hope you will continue letting me know your views. We are scheduled to wrap up our work by the end of this month.