Legislative Update 4/19/2020

The 2020 Kentucky General Assembly has concluded.  The final days of session were extraordinary as we did our best to observe social distancing, not only to keep ourselves and one another safe, but to protect Kentuckians all across the state as we returned home to our own districts after Wednesday night’s almost-midnight adjournment.   
 
Conducting legislative business remotely from our individual offices in the Capitol Annex involved streaming KET’s legislative coverage onto our devices, communicating with caucus leadership and staff via text message, snapping photos of paper voting sheets, and emailing them to the Clerk of the House.  While this cobbled-together process worked well enough for gathering votes on bills, it is an understatement to say that it severely limited meaningful debate and discussion!  That, and the lack of public participation in the democratic process, made for a very strange and troubling end to the session.
 
As I consider the 2020 session, I find myself most grateful for some of the harmful bills that did not pass into law.  Notably, the top two priorities for the majority party’s leadership – Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 1 – were stopped in their tracks, thanks to public outcry, and to the hard work and influence of members of the minority party.  SB 1, the “family separation bill,” was an anti-immigrant initiative that would have prohibited sanctuary cities in KY (note: there are no sanctuary cities in our state), and would have required nearly every state employee to assist federal agencies in deportation efforts. HB 1 would have established numerous barriers for accessing public assistance, including work requirements for Medicaid. The COVID-19 global pandemic has clearly illustrated the need for healthcare for all, and that when people are struggling, we need a strong social safety net that can be easily accessed. HB 1 would have weakened safety net programs and established new barriers.
 
Thank you again to the many District 35 voters for your persistent calls to oppose these bills!  Your voices matter, and together we made a difference.   
 In these unprecedented and challenging times, I’m grateful that the legislature was able to carry out our constitutional duty to approve a budget, and that we successfully addressed a number of important issues with some strong bipartisan efforts.  In the final days, both the House and Senate passed legislation that will: 

  • Help struggling rural hospitals by making them eligible for economic development loans offered by the state.
  • Give the state more authority to reduce jail overcrowding by moving inmates to facilities having more room;
  • Establish a new K-12 accountability system to provide the public a clearer and more complete picture of how schools are performing;
  • Reaffirm the Governor’s authority to allocate necessary expenditures to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers and first responders, and allow him to use unrestricted state funds to pay for the equipment; and
  • Call on law enforcement agencies to document their guidelines for conducting high-speed chases.

The legislature did consider more COVID-related emergency measures, but the most significant of those, a new version of SB 136 passed out of the House Wednesday, but was not taken up in the Senate. The bill would have allowed restaurants, hospitals and other professional organizations working on advisory plans to guide Governor Beshear when the time comes to begin lifting restrictions.  I had the opportunity to work as part of a small bipartisan team on a section of SB 136 that would have decreased barriers to social services and supports for students and their families.
 
While we can and should celebrate the good bipartisan work that allowed some bad bills to languish, good ones to pass, and complicated ones to be improved, I agree with the many of you who contacted me to express your view that legislators should not be conducting non-emergency public policy when the public could not even be in the Capitol, and when lawmakers’ ability to engage in debate and discussion was severely hampered.  Having shown an ability to work together in meaningful ways for the good of our state, it was particularly discouraging to witness some of the divisive hyper-partisanship that was also on display in the session’s last days.     
 
In the final two days, the General Assembly regrettably overrode nearly every veto Governor Andy Beshear had issued, and passed more than 30 new bills, some of which were especially divisive.  During the veto period, the Governor struck down relatively little, while asking for maximum flexibility to deal with the pandemic, and he also sought to keep our coal counties and teachers from bearing an unfair burden financially in this budget.  Unfortunately, these reasonable requests were rejected, with the votes to override the vetoes falling along party lines.
 
The Governor’s veto of Senate Bill 2, requiring most voters to show a photo ID, was also met with a party-line veto override.  It is important to note that there has not been a single verified case of in-person voter fraud in Kentucky in the past 20 years, the alleged “problem” that SB 2 purports to solve.  SB 2 was opposed by the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the ACLU, and University of Kentucky elections law professor Josh Douglas, on grounds that similar laws in other states are associated with suppressed voter turnout among the poor, the elderly, people with disabilities, people of color, people from rural areas, and women.  Kentucky’s County Clerks opposed the bill because of associated logistical concerns.  A similar bill in Indiana cost taxpayers over $10 million for the cost of issuing ID cards. SB 2 is additionally problematic at this time when state offices that would provide acceptable photo IDs are indefinitely closed.  The vote to uphold SB 2 cannot be interpreted as anything other than a partisan effort to make voting more difficult.  
 
Another particularly problematic bill, SB 9, achieved final passage on Wednesday night.  Among other dangerous and short-sighted provisions, SB 9 removes oversight of abortion clinics from the health experts at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, placing it instead under the Office of the Attorney General.  This kind of partisan power grab is troubling at any time, but in the midst of a global pandemic with the public shut out of the process, it is nothing short of shameful. 
 
For all bills passed in the final two days of the 2020 Session that have been enrolled and sent to the Governor, visit: https://apps.legislature.ky.gov/record/20rs/enrolled.html
 
Although the session has ended, I’m always open to hearing your ideas and concerns. My email address is Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line is 1-800-372-7181.
 
These continue to be challenging times for our community, our state, our country, and the world.  Whether you are on the front lines providing essential services, or looking out for others by staying safe and healthy at home, I want to express my deep gratitude for all that you are sacrificing in these unprecedented and challenging times, I stand with you.  We will get through this together.