Legislative Update 3/8/2020

Dear Friends,

The General Assembly wrapped up its final full week of the session last Friday, with just six full working days remaining in this regular session. I’ll be in Frankfort this week for committee meetings, and the legislature will be back in session this Thursday and Friday. 

The legislative pace has been fast and picking up speed, and we’ve covered a lot of ground.  The comments below represent just a sample of activity from last week in the legislature. 

Good news…

As we recognize International Women’s Day today, a positive statistic to report is that Kentucky leads the region in increasing the number of women elected to its state legislature.  In more good news for Kentucky women, House Bill 294 made it out of committee this week, and unanimously passed the House floor.  HB 294 would require hospitals to provide information and resources on postpartum depression to mothers and families of newborns.  The bill is the first of the House Democratic Women’s Caucus’s Maternal and Infant Health Project  to clear the House and make its way to the Senate.  Senate Bill 84, a bill to provide protections for incarcerated women during pregnancy and the 6-week postpartum period also cleared the House this week.   

To continue on the “good news” front, we saw some progress last week in mental health legislation.  HB 148, a longtime initiative of mental health advocates, would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.  The bill passed the House 75-16, and has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.  House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 7 would establish a legislative task force on severe mental illness.  HCR 7 passed unanimously in the House.  It has been referred to the Senate, where no action has yet been taken. 

Unemployment legislation…

House Bill 367 would open career centers and provide in-person unemployment assistance in areas of the state where unemployment is 5% or greater. The need for fully-staffed offices across the state could not be any clearer.  HB 367 passed the House unanimously, and has been referred to the Senate.  Senate Bill 7  will stop penalizing Kentuckians who received excess unemployment insurance payments through no fault of their own, and were at risk of having to repay that additional money.  Kentucky is among just a small handful of states that doesn’t have this protection already in place.  SB 7 has passed both chambers, and has been sent to the Governor for his signature. 

Some observations on partisanship…

This seems like as good a place as any to offer some observations on the role of partisanship in the Kentucky legislature.  Both HB 367 and SB 7 are Republican-sponsored bills that began as Democrat-sponsored initiatives.  There are numerous examples of Democrat-sponsored ideas that passed, or received a committee hearing, only when Republican-sponsored versions of the same or similar bills were filed.   

On the one hand, it doesn’t much matter as long as good bills that help Kentuckians ultimately make it across the finish line.  On the other, it’s an important reminder that elections have consequences.  As my colleague Rep. Rachel Roberts stated in this excellent Herald-Leader op ed, “If  [a bill] needs to go into the hands of Republican to get passed, I’m fine with that, but people should understand that’s what is happening.” 

I’m glad the press took note of this frequently-occurring partisan tactic.  In just a matter of days after the H-L ran Linda Blackford’s op ed, three Democrat-sponsored bills were assigned to committees and passed the House.

A fourth, Rep. Attica Scott’s HB 21, Breonna’s Law for Kentucky, was finally assigned to a House committee for a hearing.  There’s still time for HB 21 to get a fair hearing and to pass both chambers – it will be important to keep an eye on how, or if, this important legislation progresses.    

Other legislation to watch…

Helping businesses.  I was very glad to cast my “yes” vote on SB 15 and SB 67, two bills to help small and local restaurants and craft breweries, businesses that are struggling for survival in the wake of COVID-19.  On the other hand, I’m sorry to see the Kentucky General Assembly continue to offer handouts for giant corporations at the expense of ordinary Kentuckians.  HB 372 would offer enormous tax incentives to companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google that do not need our help.  Read more here.   HB 372 passed the House 82-15. 

Frankfort overreach.   HB 208 in its original form was a good bill to extend an executive order giving flexibility to school districts during COVID-19.  The KY legislature amended the bill so that it bypasses locally-elected school board members’ ability to make local decisions at the most local level.  HB 133 interferes with local school board authority to generate revenue.  Senator Chris McDaniel (R) stated this week that if members of the legislature wish to make these decisions, then they ought to run for a seat on their local school board.  I agree.   

Legislative overreach extended this week to Metro Louisville’s local governance. HB 309 interferes with mayoral term limits established by Jefferson County voters, as well as the authority of Metro Council.  HB 208 (amended), HB 133, and HB 309 all passed the House this week. 

Coming up.  Keep an eye on HB 563.  This formerly benign education bill has had language tacked onto it regarding “opportunity accounts.” In its current form, these opportunity accounts could only be used for public schools, but this could be a “foot in the door” to private school vouchers, an initiative shown to be harmful to low-income students.  More here:  https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-general-assembly/2021/03/05/kentucky-education-bill-equal-opportunity-school-district-zone/6852043002/.   Economic analysis of private school vouchers here: https://kypolicy.org/voucher-would-drain-much-needed-resources-from-kentucky-public-schools/.  And an op ed on private school vouchers from a Catholic perspective, written by my friend and legislative predecessor, Rep. Jim Wayne.

SB 211 is another dangerous bill to keep an eye on. This legislation would criminalize insulting a police officer.  Read more here.   (This is another bill that is in direct opposition of my legislative efforts to protect protesters’ first amendment rights.)    

Most of the bills discussed above are still at least one step away from becoming law, and the legislature still needs to approve a one-year state budget in the short time we have left.  That’s a lot of work remaining in six legislative days. 

As always, I appreciate hearing your thoughts and concerns on these or other legislative matters. You can email me by responding to this message, or at my legislative email address: Lisa.Willenr@lrc.ky.gov.  The toll-free message line for legislators is 1-800-372-7181.  Bills and votes can be found on the General Assembly’s web page at legislature.ky.gov.

Be well,