Legislative Update 1/22/2022

Dear Friends,
I’ll start with some good news out of the KY General Assembly this week! 

Focus on Mental Health

The challenges of the pandemic have spotlighted the importance of mental health, and we’re seeing the legislature take up more bills to address mental and behavioral health concerns. On our first day back following the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, the Kentucky House took up only one bill: HB44.  
This is the bipartisan, student-led bill I sponsored along with Rep. Bobby McCool, to allow excused absences for student mental health days.  

The bill passed unanimously out of the House, and received broad news coverage across the state: in Central KentuckyWestern KentuckyNorthern Kentucky, and beyond.  The bill has strong support from many education and mental health groups, and is on track for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.  (In one of the news clips, we hear from one senator that “kids just need to be in school.”  This comment underscores the ongoing need for more conversations and understanding of mental health concerns, and the importance of legislation like HB44!) 

HB 237, a bill I sponsored along with Rep. Kim Moser, chair of the House Health and Family Services Committee, also passed unanimously out of the House this week.  The bill would improve training for licensed psychologists in meeting the needs of underserved populations.  It would also support psychology internships, an important tool for attracting and retaining psychologists in the state.  On to the Senate! 

HB 127 would allow more Kentuckians with severe mental illness (SMI) to qualify for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment, and would help disrupt the cycle of arrests, incarceration, involuntary hospitalizations, and houselessness that is the current fate of far too many people with SMI.  The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Rep. Ken Fleming and me, passed unanimously out of committee this week and is slated for a vote on the House floor.   

There is more good mental health legislation in the works, along with some significant challenges in this area, but it’s heartening to see the legislature take up these good policies.   

Bigger news items from the past week, of course, are the ongoing sagas of redistricting and the state budget. 

Redistricting            

This week, the governor vetoed the new maps for the 100-member state House and our six Congressional districts, while allowing the new state Senate and state Supreme Court maps to pass into law.  In his veto messages, Gov. Beshear described the new maps as “an unconstitutional political gerrymander.”

There are several troubling aspects about these maps, including how the state House map minimizes representation in some urban areas, while the congressional map stretches one district from the Mississippi River to Frankfort.  (NOTE: the congressional map for Jefferson County voters remains largely unchanged, and I highlighted specific changes to the 35th House district in an earlier update.) 

The Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, and both redistricting vetoes were easily overridden.  In response, a group of concerned Kentucky voters filed suit that same day to block the maps’ implementation.  It’s not unusual for state redistricting plans to be challenged in court, and the same thing happened here in Kentucky after the 1990 and 2010 Census changes. 

History suggests that a resolution will come quickly, and a final decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court could be handed down within a few weeks.

The Budget

On the same day the General Assembly took up redistricting vetoes, the Kentucky House voted and approved its version of the state budget. 

Thanks to federal funding from the Biden Administration and US Congressional leaders like John Yarmuth – the only member of Kentucky’s federal legislative delegation to vote in favor of much-needed new funding for the states – Kentucky has billions more dollars available than in any past budget cycle.  The budget approved by the House this week is the first since 2006 that doesn’t include budget cuts for important areas like education, healthcare, and infrastructure.  We’ve heard Republican legislators congratulate themselves for this needed funding, but they fail to mention that much of the money comes from federal funding that every single one of their Republican colleagues in Congress voted against.

There is much to like in the House budget, including funding for full-day Kindergarten, an increase in per-student funding, and new investments in rural health.  

Despite these and other high points, the budgets falls short in many ways – e.g. no raises for teachers and school employees, insufficient school and general mental health resources, insufficient resources to address child welfare issues (Kentucky has been #1 in child abuse for three straight years), and the growing needs of aging Kentuckians going largely ignored.  

Aside from these and other specific concerns, the House budget misses out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to articulate and fund a bold new vision to move our state forward and benefit every Kentuckian.  

I voted no. 

In their budget presentation, the House majority referred repeatedly and ominously to “tax reform” efforts likely to follow.  The last round of majority-led “reforms” amounted to tremendous benefits for large corporations and the highest earning 5% of Kentuckians, while costing the rest of us significantly more.  Stay tuned, but I’m afraid we’ve been given a very discouraging preview of coming attractions.  

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The legislative committee work and the number of bills coming for votes will likely increase in the weeks ahead.  I’ll continue to keep you posted.

In the meantime, and as always, you can contact me with your comments, questions and concerns by responding to this email, at Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov and by calling the Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181. 
 
Stay safe, be well,
 
Lisa