Almost 70 bills whizzed through the General Assembly last Tuesday in a 16-hour blitz waged mostly by Republicans to pass legislation before Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period. If the governor chooses to veto any of the bills, lawmakers will still be able to override his decision.
It was the Act 1 finale to a hectic, short legislative session during which lawmakers have so far managed to pass a budget and over 100 bills. The General Assembly convenes again at the end of the month for two more days. Beshear will have the authority to veto any bills passed during that time.
Since lawmakers are taking a break, let’s assess where we are. What bills have passed, and which are in danger of failure?
Criminal Justice Reforms
The same legislature that passed a Blue Lives Matter bill in 2017 did manage to pass some criminal justice reforms in its 2021 session — even as the Republican supermajority has grown.
Senate Bill 52 and Senate Bill 80 both address policing directly. The first would make it a crime for police officers to have sexual contact with individuals in custody. (As Rep. Rachel Roberts, D-Newport said, “How is this not already a law in Kentucky?”) And, SB 80 will make it easier to decertify police officers by prohibiting them from resigning or retiring before internal investigations are complete. It also expands the number of offenses eligible for decertification, including the addition of unjustified use of excessive or deadly force.
Senate Bill 84 would create new protections for people who are pregnant and incarcerated. It ends solitary confinement for pregnant people, provides six weeks of postpartum care, allows infants to stay with their incarcerated parent for 72 hours and connects them with a social worker to help with childcare and substance use treatment if needed.
House Bill 126 raises Kentucky’s threshold from felony theft to $500 — low for the country — to $1,000. It’s expected to save the state $4 million in prison costs.
Senate Bill 10 – A Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity
Its sponsors called it an important step forward, its detractors are sick of too many studies and not enough change. Senate Bill 10, a bipartisan bill, would create a commission in the legislature that will analyze racial inequities and recommend legislation.
House Bill 563 – School Choice
This school choice bill has several measures that prompted Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, to call it “the beginning of the end for public education in Kentucky.” When students attend a school outside of their district, it would increase funding to those schools — diverting resources away from others. The disinvestment in public education would continue, detractors fear, with state funds instead being directed to tax credits for people donating to scholarships for some private schools. But, if Beshear vetoes it, which he says he’s considering, Republicans might not have the votes to overturn it.
Limiting Beshear’s Powers
The main priority for Kentucky Republicans this year seemed to be seeking revenge on Beshear for caring about human lives during the pandemic. In the first few weeks of the session, they passed Senate Bill 1 and 2 and House Bill 1 — all of which limit Beshear’s ability to issue executive orders like his mask mandate. These are being challenged in court now. The legislature also passed Senate Bill 228, which strips Beshear of the ability to name a replacement of his choosing should one of Kentucky’s U.S. Senators leave their seat mid-term (*cough* McConnell *cough*). Instead they’d grant that honor to the state party of the departing representative, who would draft a list of three nominees for the governor to choose from.
Kentucky Republicans passed their budget this session, leaving many of the funding boosts that Beshear had championed behind. That means no raises for teachers or state workers, no new social workers and no money for improving school buildings. Instead, lawmakers decided to use a projected surplus and federal CARES funding to more than double Kentucky’s rainy day fund… for a year when the state is drowning. But, the legislature still has yet to craft a plan for how to spend the $2.6 billion coming to the state from the American Rescue Plan Act.
BILLS IN DANGER
There is still time for new bills to pass, but not much. Here are the ones with an uncertain future.
Subpoena Power for Civilian Review Board
A top issue for Louisville officials — give the city’s new police civilian review board or inspector general subpoena power — has turned into a political quagmire. Senate Bill 247, Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey’s solution to the issue, would have allowed judges to grant subpoena power, but it was passed over. Instead, Republicans tried to push House Bill 309, which would require the civilian review board to ask the Metro Government Oversight and Audit Committee for subpoenas, which could only grant it for city employees. The bill also would limit Louisville mayors to two terms. McGarvey said that Metro Council “would rather have nothing” than HB 309. They might get it.
The bill passed in the House and awaits a vote in the Senate.
Senate Bill 125 – West End TIF
A proposed West End TIF (tax-increment finance) district would pay for economic development projects in the area for the next 30 years with the projects’ own future tax revenues. To make sure residents could stay in the area, the bipartisan legislation would freeze homeowner property taxes for that same time period. The proposal was not without its detractors, who still feared that the TIF district would displace renters, since landlords could still raise housing costs — even with a component requiring residential developments with TIF financing to include affordable housing. Others were concerned that the board regulating the TIF would not have enough community representation. The TIF board would be required to have five seats for community members and for 50% of the seats to be filled by Black members.
The bill has been assigned to the Senate’s Appropriations & Revenue Committee.
LGBTQ Bills, Good and Bad
The General Assembly has yet to devote much time to LGBTQ issues this year, for better or for worse.
Several anti-trans bills faltered in the legislature, including Senate Bill 106 and House Bill 471, which would ban trans girls and women from competing in school sports. House Bill 336 would prohibit gender-affirming healthcare for minors.
But two bills that would have helped Kentucky’s LGBTQ community, a conversion therapy ban (Senate Bill 30, House Bill 19) have also not seen much movement, despite bipartisan support.
SB 106, the anti-trans school sports bill, is the only bill to have been assigned to a committee.
Senate Bill 211 – Criminalizing Police Insults
In retaliation for protesters in Louisville exercising their constitutional right to assemble this summer, this bill attacks another part of the First Amendment: Free speech. SB 211 would make it a misdemeanor to accost, insult, taunt or challenge “a law enforcement officer with offensive or derisive words, or by gestures or other physical contact that would have a direct tendency to provoke a violent response.” In general, the bill seeks to crack down on “rioters,” including by requiring them to be held in jail for a minimum of 48 hours after being arrested.
It passed the Senate and is awaiting a committee assignment in the House.
Senate Bill 4 – No-knock Warrants
A bill regulating no-knock warrants, in response to Breonna Taylor’s killing, passed in the Senate. And now, weighed down with floor amendments, it’s awaiting a vote in the House. Some of the amendments would overturn key components of the bill, including one that would allow no-knock warrants for some drug-related raids (instead of limiting them for violent situations) and another that would extend the time period during which a no-knock warrant could be executed to midnight (instead of limiting it to 6 a.m.-10 p.m.). The amendments would also allow officers without specialized training to execute the warrant.