Kentucky Senate Priorities: Purposeful or Political?

Kentucky Republicans started the 2020 legislative session last week with a less-combative governor, albeit a Democrat, and under the shadow of a looming budget crisis that threatens services and cities statewide.

So, what does the state Senate pick as its priorities?

Bills that focus on immigration, voter IDs and election scheduling.

The priorities, especially the ones regarding immigration and voting, could be seen as wedge issues, those that force the Democrats to pick a side or suffer political consequences. 

The Senate Minority Floor Leader, Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey, said he believes they show that Republicans are more interested in politics than working on the budget and other issues that could help Kentuckians.

“I think the five priority bills filed by the majority are political bills meant to rile up their base in an election year,” he said, referring to the General Assembly elections taking place in 2020. “These bills seem to be solutions in search of problems.”

Senate President Robert Stivers and his team did not return LEO’s calls for comment, but he told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the bills are not political in nature.

“It has nothing to do with political statements,” he said. “These are things we truly believe are policy issues that need to be dealt with.”

This year, in addition to being a budget year, it is an election year, with 119 races for General Assembly seats.

Al Cross, UK’s director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community issues and a longtime Courier Journal political and government reporter, said that any political agenda setting exercise, including the Senate’s legislative priority announcement, has a political purpose. 

“There are public policy purposes for sure, but people don’t pay that close attention to the details of public policy,” he said. “This is a way for Republicans to sort of put out a platform. They no longer have the governorship. So, this platform is more important than it has been before.”

Former Jefferson County GOP Chairman Bill Stone said that he believes that Stivers, while “a good, solid conservative,” is not going into the legislative session with political motives.

“He’s going to try to do the things for the good of the people and not run a circus,” said Stone. 

Cross believes that most of the Senate’s legislative priorities will be easy to pass.

Senate Bill 1 would require public employees, including law enforcement officers to use their “best efforts” to support immigration law enforcement. 

Senate Bill 2 would require photo identification to vote. 

SB 3 would hold Kentucky’s gubernatorial elections in presidential election years. 

SB 4 would limit the governor’s ability to select a secretary of the state Transportation Cabinet.

And SB 5 would prevent “special purpose government entities,” such as library boards, from approving their own taxes without the go-ahead from city councils or county fiscal courts.

Here’s a run-down on each legislative priority and their potential consequences:

SB 1: Anti-Sanctuary

Stivers has told The Courier Journal that the Senate’s anti-sanctuary bill is related to his concerns with illegal immigrants engaging in criminal activity and using public resources.

But Cross said, “The issue of sanctuary cities is so minor in terms of public policy in the state that it is far outweighed by whatever political intentions the Republicans have in proposing this.”

Cross believes that Republicans could use the sanctuary bill as a way to trap the new Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear into taking an immigration stance that Republicans believe would be unpopular with the rural electorate or would alienate Beshear’s progressive base. 

“Any governor who can run for re-election is running for re-election from the get-go unless they said they’re not going to,” Cross said.

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SB 2: Voter ID

Photo voter ID bills have become a priority for Republicans across the country in recent years, said Cross. 

For Republicans like Stone, they’re seen as a way to improve election security. 

“I think it’s a very good thing for Kentucky, because it makes sure that those people who are registered to vote and who show up at the polls are actually the people who are who they claim they are,” Stone said.

But, Cross said there is not a lot of evidence for voter fraud related to IDs, and some Republican officials see such bills as a way to improve their election prospects, because they believe those who lack drivers licenses would be more likely to vote Democratic. 

However, Cross is skeptical that such a bill could actually help Republicans in the state.

“I do not think it is all that significant in Kentucky, because we have a drivers license office in every county,” he said. “Every circuit court clerk issues drivers licenses and state-issued IDs.”

And, Kentucky has the third largest number of counties — 120 — than any state in the country.

SB 3: Election Years

Changing Kentucky’s big election years — for the governor, secretary of state, and more — to presidential election years, is another bill that could benefit Republicans in future elections, said Cross. 

Kentucky has voted Republican in its presidential elections since 1956 unless there was a Southerner on the ballot, but since 1859, the state has skewed Democratic in its gubernatorial elections, voting in only nine Republicans compared to 32 Democrats.

But, there’s an argument that the bill could help Democrats, too, by increasing over voter turnout, Cross said. 

“So, it’s really not a black and white situation,” he said. “There are shades of gray.”

Cross sees SB 4 running into trouble in the Kentucky House even with a Republican supermajority.

In 2016, a similar bill failed because some conservatives do not want Kentucky’s elections connected to federal elections, Cross said. Stone is one such conservative. 

“I like them in odd years because it makes Kentucky’s election for governor unique,” he said. “It creates national attention for the state, but more importantly the election of governor becomes the election of governor.”

In other words, Kentuckians are voting for whom they think is the best candidate and not letting national politics infiltrate their decision. 

SB 4: Secretary of Transportation

Senate Bill 4, which would give the General Assembly say in the governor’s Transportation Cabinet secretary appointment, already saw controversy and debate over its motivation when it was pre-filed in November. 

Former House Speaker Jeff Hoover, a Republican, accused conservative legislators of getting caught up in “political pettiness,” as Beshear took power, according to an email obtained by The CJ.

Cross deferred to Hoover’s opinions saying that he was “pretty well on point.”

The argument for changing the process, Cross said, is that the Transportation Cabinet has authority over projects that affect a lot of people, such as road construction and maintenance, and the Legislature should have more leverage over the cabinet leader.

SB 5: Taxing Entities

Stone agrees that boards such as libraries shouldn’t be able to raise taxes. 

“An agency should have to go through elected officials, who are accountable to the voters,” he said. 

Cross said he’s not “really sure” about Senate Bill 5 when it comes to what it would mean for the state.

“But it fits with the profile that the Republicans want to cut as being a party that is wary of taxes,” he said. •

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