Legislative Update 4/5/2021 – End of Session

Dear Friends, 

The 2021 session of Kentucky’s General Assembly came to a close last week.  

In late 2020, one of the legislative leaders announced that the pandemic would “limit our ability to tackle a large number of issues.”  Another said to expect a “lean” agenda, and committee chairs said that we would tackle pandemic-related items along with just a few high priority items.

That’s not the way it played out! 

For better and for worse, the 2021 session was enormously consequential, with bills on many major issues passing in the final couple of days.  Over the 30 working days of the legislative session, an astonishing 202 bills passed, out of nearly 900 filed.  The thousands upon thousands of pages included legislative power grabs; an austere one-year state budget; a billion dollar-plus legislative spending plan for Kentucky’s federal COVID-relief funds; an historic two-pronged attack on public education; criminal justice and voting reforms; and some positive news in healthcare delivery. 

Veto overrides…
Days 29 and 30 of the session follow ten “Veto Days” when the Governor has the opportunity to review and veto bills.  During this period, Governor Beshear vetoed 27 bills.  On our first day back last week, the House and Senate overrode nearly all of those, mostly along party lines.  Once a veto is overridden, the bill becomes a law, usually immediately.

During veto overrides in the House, the leaders of the super-majority party limited discussion and debate to five minutes per side.  This was a shocking and unprecedented move for a body that is designed for deliberation and where civil dissent should be welcome.  While the foreclosure on discussion did not feel very democratic, it certainly made for a very efficient process, in which a bad or very bad bill achieved final passage every five to ten minutes.  Some key veto overrides include: 

  • HB 563:  Allows education tax credits.  $25 million from the state’s general fund can now be used to offset taxes for individuals or corporations who give money to publicly unaccountable “educational opportunity accounts.”  These are, in essence, school vouchers – part of an education “reform” agenda that has not worked out well in other states. 
  • HB 258: Weakens retirement benefits for new teacher hires, and requires new teachers to work longer to get full retirement. 
  • HB 312: The General Assembly gave itself final say on open-records requests for legislative information.  Agencies can now take longer to provide public records, and they can largely ignore those requests coming from out-of-state.  If sunlight is the best disinfectant, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice (and native Kentuckian) Louis Brandeis once said, this law is a cloak of darkness.
  • HB 475:  Endangers worker safety by preventing local regulations to be any stricter than federal OSHA guidelines. 
  • HB 405: Puts the legislature in charge of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, taking this authority from the executive branch.  
  • SB 228: Requires the Governor to appoint someone of the same party if a U.S. senator leaves office early.  The bill was originated and backed by Mitch McConnell.  (More here: https://www.newsweek.com/mitch-mcconnell-backs-bill-ensure-hes-not-replaced-democrat-if-he-leaves-office-early-1569438
  • HB 272: Allows a 10% late fee to be added to delinquent water bills each billing period, despite findings that such fees are harmful to consumers and do not significantly increase collections.  (Action alert from the Kentucky Resources Council: https://mailchi.mp/kyrc/2019-general-assembly-bills-were-watching-the-ninth-edition-2939434?e=120a3aa7ab
  • SB 65: Punishes non-custodial parents who are late in child-support payments by disqualifying them from federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  This initiative will cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in administrative fees, while increasing food insecurity for thousands of KY children. 

It was startling to observe how little many members of the majority party seemed to know what was actually in some of  the bills.  There was a good deal of confusion in the presentation of several bills, and many insufficient or muddled responses in the brief time allowed for questions.  All this was made even stranger by the absence of Kentuckians in the Capitol.  Because of ongoing public health restrictions, there were no protesters in the Capitol rotunda, or viewers in the chamber gallery to bear witness.  

Legislative power grabs…

Bills like SB 228 and HB 405 were just two examples of legislative power grabs passed this session.  Other bills will prevent the Governor from re-organizing many parts of the Executive Branch; diminish gubernatorial oversight of the Kentucky State Fair Board, the Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Governor’s Office of Agriculture Policy; and parcel out many of the Governor’s powers to, variously, the Attorney General, the Agriculture Commissioner and the State Treasurer.  The legislature also passed a bill that will go on the Kentucky general election ballot in 2022 that would allow the General Assembly to call itself back into a special session, a privilege now only afforded to the Governor by Kentucky’s state constitution.  

The Budget…

The General Assembly passed a budget that rejected Governor Beshear’s compassionately conservative one-year budget proposal, passing instead a stripped-down version that includes no raises for state workers or school employees, or money for additional social workers.  In a budget that is neither compassionate nor conservative, the budget includes millions in new tax giveaways in the form of tax credits: $25 million for “education opportunity accounts,”  $75 million for film tax credits, $100 million for historic preservation credits, and untold millions more to lure new workers here, but only if they work remotely for a company that otherwise has no presence in the Commonwealth.

On the positive side, the budget also includes $140 million to cover all-day public kindergarten costs.  The state currently pays for half-day, but since most districts cover the other half, they will now be able to use this money to meet other needs.  I’m hopeful that this one-time appropriation will become a permanent investment in Kentucky kids.   

Criminal Justice… 

In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s death, it has become part of her legacy for states and municipalities across the country to take up legislation that bans dangerous no-knock warrants.  (More here: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/breonna-taylor/2021/03/12/spread-of-breonnas-law-across-us-has-become-policy-legacy/4642996001/)  Louisville Metro passed such an ordinance in 2020.  

Despite a public outcry to ban dangerous “no-knock” warrants across Kentucky, we did not get that done this session.  We did, however, pass an amended version of SB 4 that places some limits on no-knock warrants, and that will require the presence of EMTs when these raids are carried out.  SB 4 is the start, not the end, of our work in this area.

Other important criminal justice reforms that were proposed this session, but failed to pass (including several that I sponsored) are featured here: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/breonna-taylor/2021/03/26/kentucky-legislature-ignores-police-reform-despite-protestors-pleas/4747800001/

In better news for the criminal justice system, felony theft and fraud limits will soon rise from $500 to $1,000, and new legislation makes it easier to help many felons re-integrate back into society after incarceration. 

 Good news! Voting… 

In a great bipartisan move, Kentuckians will now have three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting. The popular online portal to request an absentee ballot will be available, as will secure in-person drop boxes for absentee ballots.  Counties will also be able to create voting “super-centers” where any registered voter in the county may cast a ballot. 

Kentucky still has some of the most restrictive laws in the country, but these changes move us in the right direction.

(More: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/politics/ky-general-assembly/2021/03/29/kentucky-house-passes-bill-allow-three-days-early-voting-pass/7045488002/

Healthcare access… a few good bills!

HB 140 makes permanent many of the telehealth provisions made available during the pandemic, including treatment for behavioral health and substance abuse services.  HB 95 will lower the prescription cost for insulin to $30/month for patients in state-regulated health insurance plans.  SB 169 expands disability benefits for first responders injured in the line of duty. 

There is much more that can be said about the 2021 legislative session, and our final week.  I’ve offered here, as I have throughout the session, just a snapshot of some of the high- and lowlights of the past week. (You can find past weekly wrap-ups on my website: https://lisawillner.com/ 

Any new bills passed in the final week can still be vetoed by the Governor, without possibility of override, and the session won’t technically end until Governor Beshear decides what to do with the bills sent to him last week. 

The General Assembly’s work to enact laws is over for this year.  House and Senate committees will begin monthly interim meetings in June to review issues affecting Kentucky and to start preparing for next year’s legislative session.  It’s hard to believe, but we’ll also be heading back soon into another campaign season.   

I’ll be sending periodic updates by email, along with posts to my Facebook page and Twitter accounts. 

As always, I want to thank all of you who reached out this session.  I look forward to continuing the conversations! You can email me by replying to this message, or at my legislative email: Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov.  You can also leave phone messages for me at my Frankfort office: 502-564-8100. 

Stay safe, be well!