When state lawmakers return to Frankfort to kick off the upcoming legislative session on Jan. 5, their top priority will no doubt be grappling with Kentucky’s dismal budget forecast. And though legislators are expected to spend much of the next few months balancing a projected $100 million shortfall, that has not deterred them from pre-filing hundreds of bills for consideration.
As usual, this year’s crop of legislation covers an array of topics, some inarguably more important than others: There are measures that propose sweeping changes in dealing with domestic violence, capital punishment and education. There’s also a contingent of lofty resolutions, like one urging legislators to repeal a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a heterosexual union, and another urging Congress not to further limit the rights of Kentuckians to tote guns. And of course there is a handful of random, trivial and bizarre bills dealing with pressing matters like rabies awareness, sports cars and dentures.
But let’s start with the serious stuff.
On the education front, two state representatives have filed bills calling for the legalization of charter schools in Kentucky. The bluegrass is one of only 10 states that do not allow charter schools, which receive public funding and are free to students but are not bound to the same statutes as public schools.
“We are failing a large percentage of our student population. Primarily, we are failing our poor and minority families,” says Rep. Brad Montell, a Shelbyville Republican sponsoring one of the two charter school proposals. Unlike public schools, charters have the freedom to alter their curriculums as needed to suit students, Montell explains. “It’s time to forget about turf wars in education and do what’s right for the children.”
In recent years, a handful of lawmakers have filed bills promoting charter schools, but the measures have consistently stalled out, never making it to the point of debate. And while Montell is banking on his bill garnering serious consideration, he acknowledges the budget will dominate the conversation, along with a debate over expanded gambling: “The gaming issue is of course going to be a big part of the discussion again this year, whether it’s through a constitutional amendment or some other measure.”
Thus far there’s only one bill — BR 259 — dealing with the prospect of legalizing slot machines in Kentucky, although more are expected. Submitted by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, the bill would let voters decide whether to allow video slots in counties with existing racetracks.
“It is my firm belief that if we are going to expand gambling in Kentucky, it requires a vote of the people,” says Thayer, adding that his bill would require the state to contribute at least $100 million a year from slot revenues to the struggling thoroughbred industry. “I think it’s time to put it on the ballot.”
In addition to tackling gambling, Thayer has proposed legislation under the catchy moniker “The Transparency Act of 2010.” One of those bills — BR 290 — would require state government to begin posting all expenditures online by 2011. “I think people have lost some trust and confidence in government at all levels, and I think we owe it to them to try and restore that trust,” Thayer says. “One way to do that is to allow them to follow the expenditures of state government. After all, it’s their tax dollars being spent.”
In a further push for transparency, Thayer filed BR 258, which would require political organizations to report campaign contributions of $5,000 or more to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
A handful of bills filed in recent months are aimed at better protecting victims of domestic violence. One of those measures has been dubbed “Amanda’s Bill” in honor of Amanda Ross, who was found shot to death outside her Lexington townhouse on Sept. 11, 2009. The victim’s ex-fiancé — former state lawmaker Steve Nunn — is charged with her murder.
Amanda’s Bill would allow judges to impose electronic monitoring on domestic violence offenders deemed especially dangerous. “Of the states that have used this system, there has not been one death that resulted,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said during a Sept. 24 press conference announcing the bill. The top Democratic lawmaker has since generated a slew of support for the bill, which he would like to see “signed into law by the governor and in effect literally before the end of January.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Louisville, is sponsoring a bill that would allow dating partners to obtain domestic violence protective orders. Currently, such protective orders are only available to married couples or those who have cohabitated or who have a child together.
“This is the kind of legislation we really need to take on in conjunction with prevention efforts,” says Denise Vazquez Troutman, president and CEO of The Center for Women and Families.
For the second year in a row, lawmakers will be asked to consider legislation prohibiting the execution of severely mentally ill defendants. Co-sponsored by Reps. David Floyd, R-Bardstown, and Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, the bill mirrors an existing law banning the execution of individuals with mental retardation and would apply only in cases where the offender’s mental illness played a role in the crime.
Another bill — filed by Democratic Rep. Tom Burch of Louisville — calls for the abolition of the death penalty in Kentucky. At this point, no other lawmaker has signed on to co-sponsor the ambitious proposal.
Given legislators will spend the better part of the upcoming 60-day session addressing critical matters and chipping away at a staggering deficit, chances are they won’t get around to debating some of the more, ahem, frivolous matters. But here’s brief a rundown, if for nothing more than a good time:
•BR 372 would require dentists to inscribe patient names on dentures.
•BR 309 would make the Corvette the official sports car of Kentucky.
•BR 268 would designate June as Kentucky Rabies Awareness Month.
•BR 199 would allow golfers to operate golf carts on public roadways as far as seven miles from a course.
•BR 50 would make Burgoo the state dish of Kentucky (a proposal that, by the way, never made it out of committee last year).
•BR 139 would allow Kentuckians to grow hemp for industrial purposes, with the proper permit of course.
Keep up with the General Assembly this session at leoweekly.com