Legislative Update 3/14/2021

Dear Friends,

The General Assembly met for two legislative days last week, Days 25 and 26 of the 30-day session.  

Later this year, Kentucky will commemorate the 130th anniversary of our state constitution.
Given some of the extreme bills the General Assembly is considering in its final days, this seems like a good moment to reflect on the wisdom of our constitution’s framers back in 1891.  This session, our state constitution has prevented repeated legislative attempts  to undermine executive powers to manage emergencies.  

We will almost certainly continue to rely on our constitution to strike down some of this session’s more egregious legislative efforts.

Public Education, the Rose decision, and HB 563….

Kentucky’s constitution requires the General Assembly to “provide for an efficient system of common schools throughout the state.”  In a landmark 1989 court case, Rose v. Council for Better Education, the Kentucky Supreme Court held that Kentucky’s General Assembly did not satisfy this requirement. To meet the constitutional requirement, the Court explained, the education system must be adequately funded, and ensure equality: “The children of the poor and the children of the rich, the children who live in the poor districts and the children who live in the rich districts must be given the same opportunity and access to an adequate education. This obligation cannot be shifted to local counties and local school districts.”  The Court also declared education a fundamental right under the State constitution.

In the wake of the Rose Decision, Kentucky’s public schools made remarkable gains, but public education funding has failed to keep up with inflation as has now been reported for several years.  (For more background, here’s a good overview from 2019: https://wfpl.org/who-pays-for-kentucky-public-schools-more-and-more-its-local-taxpayers/ )

Rather than keep up with our constitutional obligation to adequately fund public schools, the majority party has spent the past 4+ years looking for ways to use public tax dollars to pay for private education. Private school vouchers, or “scholarship tax credits,” were euphemistically re-branded this session as “education opportunity accounts (EOAs).”  Individuals or businesses – including wealthy donors – who contribute to organizations who issue EOAs would be eligible for generous tax credits that could eventually siphon away billions of public dollars from the state’s General Fund.

Last week, a limited version of EOAs was tacked onto House Bill 563, with tax credits capped at $25 million.  In its original form, HB 563 was already a consequential education funding bill relating to “KEES dollars”  — the amount of per-student state funding for public schools. 

On the House floor, lawmakers discussed and made efforts to amend HB 563 for over three hours.  Amendments failed that would have required background checks or non-discriminatory admissions policies for entities receiving EOA dollars.  While 20 amendments were filed, only two passed: one would allow EOA dollars to pay tuition and fees at private schools in Fayette, Jefferson and Kenton counties.  The other would require all school districts to offer full-day Kindergarten – although without necessarily increasing their funding.  According to analysis by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, “the bill will take $25 million from the entire state and channel it to private schools in the state’s three most affluent counties, leaving rural, lower-income communities behind.”  Read more here: https://kypolicy.org/hb-563-diverts-public-school-dollars-to-unaccountable-private-entities/  

If passed, HB 563 would monumentally change education in Kentucky, and perhaps in ways that will not pass constitutional muster. Any bill this complex, and with such far-reaching consequences, deserves a full and transparent vetting prior to a vote, and ought to include the input of education experts.  So far, these experts have not been offered a seat at the table in discussions of the bill, and the President of the Kentucky Education Association was denied the opportunity to testify on the bill when he attended a committee hearing.  

HB 563 cleared the House in a close 51-45 vote, and is now headed to the Senate.

More challenges to public education…

HB 563 comes on the heels of a bill, now on the Governor’s desk, that will make it easier to recall school tax hikes approved by locally elected school boards.  As the state continues to underfund public schools, the legislature is also making it harder for local districts to raise revenue for critical upgrades in facilities and services. 

A bill is now working its way through the Senate that would take away non-voting representation on the Kentucky Board of Education by a public school student and a public school teacher. 

At this time, the current budget draft under consideration does not include the required legislative contribution toward health insurance for retired public school teachers.  The draft also includes no new funding for mental health providers in public schools, despite the need acknowledged in last year’s Senate Bill 8, and the increased awareness that the pandemic brought for the need for these services.  I’m still hopeful that these may be added into the budget before final passage.   

No more no-knocks…

Senate Bill 4 would limit no-knocks in Kentucky.  SB 4 has passed the Senate, and passed last week out of the House Judiciary Committee.  SB 4 does not go as far as Representative Attica Scott’s HB 21, “Breonna’s Law for Kentucky.”  Many of us in the minority caucus are hoping that SB 4 can be amended on the House floor  to include some of the provisions of HB 21. 

Veto overrides….

Almost immediately following two veto announcements from the Governor’s office this week on HB 6 and SB 3, the General Assembly overrode them along straight party lines.   

House Bill 6 will give subpoena power to the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee, and Senate Bill 3 moves the tobacco settlement fund oversight from the Governor’s office to the Department of Agriculture.

Federal $$$…

I don’t typically discuss federal policy in my legislative wrap-ups, but I’m making an exception here because the American Rescue Plan Act passed last week by Congress will have an enormous impact on Kentuckians and Kentucky’s state budget.  In addition to $1400 individual relief checks to most Kentuckians, the state is set to receive an estimated $2.4 billion. Lawmakers will be keeping this number in mind when finalizing the next fiscal year budget over the next couple of days.

Perhaps most consequential of all, the American Rescue Plan includes a new tax credit for children, or a basic guaranteed income for families with children like that provided in most other wealthy countries.  (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/07/us/politics/child-tax-credit-stimulus.html)  If made permanent, this tax credit could cut the child poverty rate in half (https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/linda-blackford/article249785393.html), and has the potential to change the trajectory for a generation of young Kentuckians.

Back to Frankfort…

The House will meet on Monday and Tuesday of this week before recessing to allow the governor time to sign or veto bills.  We’ll return for our final two days of the session on March 29 and 30.  In the meantime, we still have a long to-do list to work through, including enacting a one-year state budget.  More on the budget in next week’s wrap-up.

I want to thank the many of you who have reached out to me during this legislative session.  I look forward to keeping the conversations going through the remainder of the session and into the interim.
You can email me by responding to this message, or at Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov.  The legislative message line is 800-372-7181.  You can also read bills and view vote histories on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov.

In community,

Lisa