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.

Legislative Update, 1/26/2019

Week 2 of the 3-week recess was this past week and, legislatively speaking, was a quiet one for me.

I’m working on a tax re-structuring bill that would serve a two-fold purpose: 1) make taxation fairer with fewer loopholes and tax giveaways to corporations and the wealthiest Kentuckians, and 2) significantly increase tax revenue for much-needed public investment in education, health and mental health, etc. I took some time to consult with economic experts as well as grassroots advocates who see the direct adverse effects of our current upside-down tax structure.

I will continue working on that bill during the week ahead with the goal of having legislation ready to file once we are back in session.

As always, I want to make myself as available to you as possible, and to keep you informed of my activities. Here are some upcoming events I will be attending during the week ahead:

January 28 6:00 Community Noise Forum, Louisville International Airport Authority Since airport noise is such a quality of life issue for many of us in the 35th district, I make an effort to attend these meetings as regularly as possible. Meetings are open to the public and all are welcome.

January 30 Legislative Town Hall 6:00-7:00, Louisville Free Public Library, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch. Join Rep. Mary Lou MarzianState Senator Morgan Mcgarvey, and me for a legislative preview. We will discuss public pensions, the school safety bills, hear your concerns, and answer your questions.

Recorded a KET Town Hall with host Renee Shaw, that will air in February. I will be one of several panelists discussing SB1 and HB1, the twin school safety bills that are top priority legislation for House and Senate leadership this session.

In addition, I’ve been really gratified to see how quickly my Frankfort schedule is filling up with appointments from a variety of constituents interested in discussing a vast range of issues. The best part of the job is the opportunity to hear from and meet directly with you, and to learn more about the issues you care about.

Your presence and your voice are critical to the Democratic process.

The General Assembly will return on Tuesday, Feb. 5th, to complete the remaining 26 working days of this year’s legislative session.

Legislative Update, 1/19/2019

This was Week 1 of a 3-week recess, but very busy nonetheless! I’ve had a number of meetings, both in Louisville and in Frankfort, to get to know constituents and a variety of their priorities and concerns, as well as with legislators and community advocates to work on legislation.

Two of the issues I’m actively working on are bills that would improve safety for children and youth.

One is a bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Riley, a rural Republican legislator and a retired educator, that would ban the harmful practice of corporal punishment in our public schools. While many individual districts have banned the practice at the local level, Kentucky is still in the minority of states in the country that allow it. I’ve had some productive conversations with Rep. Riley, as well as with an outstanding group of high school student advocates who’ve been working on this initiative since they were middle schoolers. I’m very happy to work with one of the group’s leaders, St. X freshmen Alex Young, on this project. I actually met Alex while going door-to-door in the 35th district during the campaign, and it’s exciting to be working with him to increase student safety in all Kentucky schools!

Another bill that I’m working on would ban the discredited and dangerous practice of so-called “conversion therapy” on minors. The rate of suicide and suicide attempts for LGBTQ youth exposed to the practice is staggering. My former State Rep. Jim Wayne filed a similar bill last session, and – as the only mental health professional serving in the Kentucky legislature – I’m grateful for the opportunity to carry on his good work to protect young people from this abusive treatment. (If you have a chance to see the recent film “Boy Erased,” I highly recommend it. Bring tissues.)

Speaking of safety, SB1 and HB1 are identical bills focused on comprehensive school safety, and a clear indication that school safety is the #1 priority for both the House and the Senate this session. The majority leadership in both chambers have made a good faith effort to craft a bill that would have bipartisan support, and have worked with stakeholders across the state. There are many positive aspects to the bill, including additional social and emotional supports for students and school staff, and adding school safety coordinators to school districts. The Trauma-Informed Schools Bill – HB 604 (2018) – that I co-authored last session is included in the bill.

The major reservation that I have about SB1 and HB1 is a requirement for every school to employ a law enforcement officer. While there are many schools and parents across the state who want that, I’ve already heard from many parents in my district who have concerns about policing in schools. (I’ve suggested that an easy fix may be to give SBDM Councils the authority to make that decision for their school at the most local level.) HB 1 has been assigned to the House Education Committee, where I will have an opportunity to weigh in, so please let me hear from you!

HB1 and SB 1 are just starting to move, but two other education-related bills – SB 3 and SB 8 – are already halfway to the Governor’s desk after clearing the Senate in just four days. Both bills are problematic.

Senate Bill 3 would weaken governance at the most local level, the Site-Based Decision Making Councils (SBDMs), by giving superintendents the councils’ authority to hire principals. This appears to be a solution in search of a problem, since SBDMs have worked well since they were first adopted as part of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990. A change to SBDMs that would be well worth considering would be the addition of a seat for classified school staff, since that is an important voice that too-often goes unheard.

Senate Bill 8 would change the tribunal system, the process for teachers to appeal dismissals. I believe the tribunal process could be improved, but I also believe that good policy comes out of authentic grassroots engagement with the people most affected. In the case of SB 8, teachers were excluded from the conversation as the policy was developed, and I have a concern that the bill may undermine due process.

Another major education bill expected to be filed this legislative session would establish a funding source for charter schools, which were authorized in 2017 but are in limbo until state financing is established.

At a time when the state can only afford about a dime extra per day for each student – and not even an extra penny for textbooks or teacher training – we cannot afford to remove any money from our public schools. Given the problems associated with charter schools in other states, I believe we need to end this charter-school experiment before it takes root in Kentucky.

If those last few bills take public education in the wrong direction, two others I support would put our children on a much better path. House Bills 112 and 113, sponsored by fellow Jefferson County freshman State Representative Josie Raymond, would have Kentucky provide full–day kindergarten, and add public preschool for every 4-year old. Currently the state funds Kindergarten at only 50%, leaving the other half-day funding to be picked up by local school districts. There is currently only very limited funding for preschool, although the research is clear about the positive impact of good and developmentally appropriate early education.

On a different topic… last week I wrote about the “emergency” regulations that limited public access to the people’s State Capitol. We received word late yesterday that one of the restrictions has been reversed, and the public will be allowed to use the tunnel connecting the Capitol and Capitol Annex buildings, although gathering or demonstrating in the tunnel is still prohibited. This is a small but significant step in the right direction. I hope the public will continue to demand access to THEIR Capitol, and that we will see other restrictions reversed as well.

Your presence and your voice are critical to the Democratic process.

The General Assembly will return on Tuesday, Feb. 5th, to complete the remaining 26 working days of this year’s legislative session.

Legislative Update, 1/12/2019

What a week! I was deeply honored to be sworn in as the State Representative for the 35th district on the first day of the session, with both my mother, Eugenia Willner, and husband, John Scruton, as well as some dear friends in attendance. I will never forget that my election was made possible by the hard work and sacrifice of a wonderful team of supporters, and that I hold the seat in Frankfort because of the people of the 35th district. I will do my very best to represent you with integrity, and to be your voice in Frankfort.

In odd-number years, we have a short 30-day session. For many years, the conventional wisdom has been that nothing much happens during the short sessions, but two big events occurred this week that turn that thinking on its head, and that could have repercussions for many years to come.

The first issue centers on Representative Jim Glenn of Owensboro who won his election last November by a single vote. Despite Rep. Glenn’s election having been certified at both the local and state level, despite a re-canvassing of the votes yielding the same result, and despite the Representative having been sworn into office, his opponent has requested that the Kentucky House review the election’s outcome, and in an unprecedented move, the House established an Elections Review Committee to examine – and possibly overturn – the certified election results.

While the outcome was very close, I stand by the fundamental tenet of our democracy that the candidate who receives the most votes is the winner of the election. That should stand whether the win is by one vote or a thousand. Nevertheless – here we are, with a panel of nine randomly selected legislators reviewing the matter. I will be keeping a close eye on this situation.

To the second issue… with the session barely underway, legislators learned that Governor Bevin’s administration had begun implementing stringent and repressive new rules that severely limit public access within the Capitol complex, citing safety concerns as the rationale. Safety is important, but it appears to be more than a coincidence that these new restrictions follow on the heels of a 2018 legislative session that brought unprecedented numbers of peaceful protestors to the Capitol. Although these changes are coming from the executive branch, I will do all that I can to make sure that the People’s House is fully welcoming and open to the People.

On a happier note, I was excited to have my committee assignments confirmed this week. I will be serving on Education; Health & Family Services; and Veterans & Military Affairs and Public Protections – 3 committees very important to me, and to our district.

On the first day of the session I filed my first bill – HB 126 – that would bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the oversight of Kentucky’s public pensions. On day 2, the bill picked up over 20 co-sponsors, and Joe Sonka of Insider Louisville published a strong piece about it.

School safety is the top priority issue for leadership in both the House and Senate, and identical bills – HB1 and SB1 – have been filed. While I’m still working my way through some of the intricacies of these sweeping bills, I was very happy to see last year’s HB 604 included in its entirety. HB 604 (2018) is the “Trauma-Informed Schools Bill” that I co-authored along with Will Coursey, the former State Representative from Marshall County, in the wake of the tragic shooting that took place there last January. HB 604 had the support of a broad range of mental health, law enforcement, and educator groups, and passed the House with near-unanimous bipartisan support before stalling in the Senate. I’m happy to see it back again in 2019.

I’ve signed on as co-sponsor on a number of excellent bills, including State Representative Mary Lou Marzian‘s statewide Fairness bill, State Representative Attica Scott‘s bill to eliminate sales tax on feminine hygiene products, and Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo’s bill to strengthen protections against human trafficking. I also had the opportunity to work with Representative Jeff Donohue on an Airport Noise Mitigation bill.

My last bit of news from the week is that I was selected by my House colleagues to chair the Democratic Women’s Caucus, alongside State Representative McKenzie Cantrell who will serve as vice chair. This is a particularly exciting time for that, as we now have 18 Democratic women State Reps in the Kentucky House: 46% of the entire Democratic House delegation, and a decisive majority of the Jefferson County delegation. It is an honor and a privilege to get to work alongside this amazing group of intelligent, compassionate, energetic, and gutsy women.