Not much winning in this legislative session

It might have taken a global pandemic, but the Kentucky state legislature came together to act responsibly and, in some cases, sensibly to pass a budget and several bills. Of course, in other cases, Republicans couldn’t help themselves to push through some bad, partisan legislation.

The best decision made by the legislators was to amend the rules of the legislature and allow remote voting. Most legislators voted remotely by texting a picture of a paper ballot. It might be the most sensible, responsible decision in history for the Kentucky legislature.

Who are the winners and losers of the truncated 2020 legislative session?

The most important piece of business was the passing of a budget — keeping the state open, at least relatively, and operating. The haste and uncertainty created by the coronavirus forced lawmakers to compromise and proceed in a nontraditional manner. Most notably, legislators passed a one-year budget instead of a two-year one.

One month ago, it would look as though the Republican-controlled legislature had steamrollered over Gov. Andy Beshear, public employees and progressives interested in more revenue generation. The legislature did pass a vape tax but no medical marijuana orsports wagering.

The budget comes in $231 million beneath Beshear’s initial proposal. Gone are proposed pay raises to teachers and public employees. No additional funds will be available to hire social workers.

In that sense, many people and groups “lost” in this budget. But a lot has happened in the last month.

The impact of the coronavirus on the state’s economy and, in turn, state revenues will be profound.

Legislators’ forecast for next year predicts the unemployment rate will rise to 5.8%, resulting in $88 million less than expected the rest of 2020, $115 million less in 2021 and $174 million less in 2022.

And even the legislature’s “pessimistic” forecast could prove to be foolishly optimistic in a few months. A recent estimate from Goldman Sachs forecasts unemployment nationwide could rise to 15% by the middle of the year — a number not seen in the U.S. since 1939.

 A report from the Economic Policy Institute estimates Kentucky could see 16.3% unemployment by July.

For context, the unemployment rate in Kentucky has been between 4.2% and 4.4% since December 2017, and the last time it was at or above 5.8% was in September 2014, on the long climb back from the height of the The Great Recession, when unemployment in Kentucky reached 10.7%, which was above than the national average.

The fact that a budget was passed that largely maintains spending levels from a year ago makes the whole state a winner.

This isn’t just calling a glass of water “half full,” describing a splash of lead-poisoned, unflushed toilet water as Dom Pérignon and telling underpaid, overworked teachers that they should be happy about it…

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 Why?

Things are about to get much worse, so maybe what they passed is the best they could have done.

Or not.

Speaking of Dom Pérignon and winners, House Bill 415 is a huge win for the wet counties. Kentuckians (in alcohol-selling and -serving counties) will finally be able to purchase and have shipped to their front door bourbon, beer and wine directly from producers inside and outside of the state. This is also a major win for Kentucky distilleries, breweries and vineyards, which can now ship to customers around the country.

Direct shipment also provides a new revenue opportunity for the state, according to Republican Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer.

Parents and future generations are also winners for Senate Bill 56, prohibiting the sale of tobacco and vaping products to people under 21. And, House Bill 351 imposes a new tax on vaping products, which is expected to raise $25 million in state revenues over the next two years.

These anti-tobacco, anti-vaping measures will have enormous positive economic impacts in future years, as each will result in a healthier, more productive population — a healthier population will be more productive contributors to society, for longer and will be less expensive to care for later in life.

The biggest losers have to be proponents of legalized medical marijuana and sports betting: The state needs the revenue more than ever, which may be what drives passage next year during The Greater Recession.

And, of course, despite providing no evidence of a single case of in-person voter fraud, Republicans pushed ahead with Senate Bill 1, requiring voters to provide a government-issued photo ID at the polls in order to vote. This is a tested GOP strategy to keep people (read: Democrats) away from the polls.

Beshear vetoed the bill, but there should be zero resistance between Republicans and a veto-override next week, as they hold super-majorities in both chambers. 

This creates an unnecessary, disenfranchising hurdle for those without an ID, and it disproportionately impacts poorer, sicker and minority communities — communities that tend to vote more Democratic.

 So, I guess, Democrats are losers, too, as well as democracy.

This just skims the surface of the expedited, last-minute activity hurried through Frankfort. There is much more to be irritated about. But it’s important to recognize that things could be a lot worse… 

Matt Bevin could still be governor. •

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