Legislative Update 2/27/2021

Dear Friends,
After a week away from Frankfort due to icy roads, the Kentucky General Assembly resumed this week.  It was an eventful 5 days!  Bills flew through committee hearings, nearly 60 bills passed the House floor this week — some good, some terrible —  and we finally saw resolution in the impeachment case.
 
Impeachment Resolved…
 
After more than 17 hours of meetings, nearly all of them behind closed doors, the House impeachment committee finally did late Tuesday what it should have done up front: recommend that no action be taken on any of the impeachment petitions.
 
It’s unfortunate to see impeachment threatened due to political or policy disagreements, but anyone can file an impeachment petition at any time, with or without justification. Impeachment in Kentucky is rare; in prior years, most petitions have been duly considered as required by law, and then filed away.  The only impeachment in Kentucky’s modern era was in the early 1990s, and followed the criminal conviction of the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, who had just been sentenced to a year in jail. No charges, much less a conviction, were involved in this year’s impeachment petitions.  In Gov. Beshear’s case, the impeachment petition had to do with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled his actions were legal, his actions followed CDC and White House recommendations, and the steps he’s taken have largely mirrored those taken by other governors across the country.
 
I’m glad this episode is now behind us. 
 
Good bills advance…
 
Two important areas where we saw passage of good legislation this week is in Elections and Healthcare.
 
Nothing is more fundamental to our American democracy than voter access.  Historically, Kentucky has been one of the most difficult states in the country in which to cast a ballot.  To accommodate the pandemic, changes were made to Kentucky’s 2020 primary and general election voting procedures that made voting easier than ever before, became a national model, and resulted in record voter turnout.  This week, the House passed an omnibus Elections bill, HB 574, that would extend some of these changes.  

The bill: 

  • Requires 3 days of early voting (NOTE: An amendment was offered that would have expanded early in-person voting to 8 days.  I voted in favor of the amendment, but sadly 68 legislators voted to reject it, and it was defeated along party lines.)   
  • Makes online absentee ballot portal permanent
  • Lets counties have Voting Centers
  • Allows ballot “cures” for signature mismatches
  • Bans ballot harvesting

According to elections expert Josh Douglas, University of Kentucky professor of Elections Law, the bill is great news for Kentucky voters, although it “doesn’t go far enough in voter expansions,” and  “some of the integrity measures are unnecessary.”
 
From my perspective, the bill falls farthest short in its failure to expand absentee mail-in voting, the method that most Kentucky voters used during the 2020 elections.   This leaves Kentucky in the minority of states that require an excuse to vote via absentee ballot.  But as Professor Douglas says, “It’s a great start.”  The bill passed the House 93-4, and now heads to the Senate. 
 
The House passed several important healthcare bills this week.  HB 95 tackles sky-rocketing insulin prices that far outpace manufacturing costs, a problem that has hit Kentucky especially hard.  While many Kentuckians have to choose between food and medicine, this legislation would cap prescription costs at $30 a month, and put Kentucky among a growing number of states taking similar cost-limiting steps.
 
HB 140 extends greater access to telehealth, including for mental health services, and passed the House unanimously this week.  HB 38, an interstate compact to extend access to psychological services, unanimously passed the House earlier in the month, and this week advanced for a committee hearing in the Senate.  HB 44 expands healthcare coverage for firefighters to include mental-health benefits to those who suffer trauma in the performance of their professional duties.  This is an important first step in recognizing the impact of job-related trauma for first responders. 
 
In an earlier update, I wrote about the Kentucky Maternal and Infant Health Project, a slate of 21 bills and resolutions sponsored by Kentucky’s House Democratic Women’s Caucus.  This week, HB 294 became the first, and hopefully not the last, of these bills to clear its first hurdle by passing unanimously out of the House Health and Family Services Committee.  HB 294 would expand mental health awareness by requiring the development and distribution of materials and resources on the ubiquitous, but too-rarely discussed, issue of post-partum depression.  The strong link between maternal depression and infant health means that this legislation could have a far-reaching impact on health outcomes for mothers and children. 
 
In more problematic news…
 
A bill already on its way to the Governor for his signature would create a new legislative investigating committee with subpoena power.  While the General Assembly has an oversight role, this clearly encroaches on the work already done by the criminal justice system, the Attorney General. and the Auditor.  There’s reason for concern that this committee could be driven more by politics than fact-finding.

We’ve already seen plenty of partisan legislative efforts to diminish powers of the Governor.  The House is now set to do the same for Metro Louisville, in HB 309.  Similarly, an amendment to HB 208  put Frankfort politicians in charge of decisions more reasonably made at the local level. 

Another bill that’s on the move would give the Attorney General more authority to target protesters, an effort that would undermine local prosecutors and chill fundamental First Amendment rights.  (NOTE: This initiative is in direct opposition to some of my legislative efforts this session:  https://www.kyforward.com/rep-lisa-willner-files-bills-aimed-at-protecting-protesters-curbing-militarization-of-police/
 
A bill passed by the House this week would  create new barriers to the public’s ability to access public records.  This is problematic any time, but particularly when many major legislative decisions are being made behind closed doors, with little input from the minority party and no opportunity for public engagement.  This secrecy keeps Kentuckians in the dark until it’s too late for them to know what impact legislation may have.  (Remember 2018’s “Sewer Bill?!”)
 
Legislation to undermine the governor’s emergency powers, limit public information, and undermine the work of duly-elected local officials tear at the very foundation of good government.  These efforts are not about doing what’s best for Kentucky and Kentuckians, but are about consolidating and wielding power. 
 
Meanwhile, too many bills that would help Kentuckians are still waiting to get out of the gate. 

The General Assembly is back in session next week for Days 20-24 of this year’s 30-day session. 
 
As always, your input is vital to the work I do.  You can respond directly to this email, or contact me at my legislative email address: Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov.  The toll-free message line for all legislators is 1-800-372-7181.  Bills and votes can be found at legislature.ky.gov.
 
In community,
Lisa