From Marijuana To Abortion: What To Expect From The Kentucky Legislature On The Issues You Care About

kentucky legislature
The Kentucky Capitol is filled with clowns.

As the 2022 legislative session gets underway in Frankfort on Jan. 4, passing plans for redistricting and the state’s first two-year budget since the pandemic will be top priorities. 

The way the redistricting map for Kentucky’s House of Representatives was developed — behind closed doors by Republicans and released last Thursday, a state holiday just days before the legislative session — has irritated Democrats. The proposed map itself would up the number of majority-minority districts from two to four, and would pit a few incumbents against one another — two sets of rural Republicans, and two sets of Louisville Democrats.

Congressional and state senate maps are anticipated to be released early in the session. Also expected in the coming days is a delay in the filing deadline for candidates from Jan. 7 to Jan. 25.

With Kentucky turning to one-year budgets in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, 2022 will be the first time lawmakers set a typical two-year budget since 2018. Kentucky is riding a wave of a $1.1 billion fiscal year budget surplus and the incoming American Rescue Plan Act funds, which means there is money to spend. Gov. Andy Beshear has called for raises for teachers and Kentucky State Police troopers. You also can expect budget topics like tornado disaster relief, essential worker pay and how much money should be set aside in the rainy day fund.

Ultimately, everything remains in the hands of the Kentucky Republicans, who maintain an supermajority in both chambers — 75-25 in the house, 30-8 in the senate.

Since it’s an even-numbered year, the session may not last longer than 60 days and cannot extend past April 15.

Here are some of the pre-filed bills and other issues we're keeping an eye on during the 60 day session:

COVID, Round 2

Republican lawmakers are again flooding the session with a series of anti-vaccination and anti-mask bills.

The most wide-reaching is BR 106, which is sponsored by 18 Republicans, with Rep. Savannah Maddox (R-Dry Ridge) as the prime sponsor.

Under BR 106, no government entity or employer can require an employee or applicant to disclose their vaccination status or to provide proof of vaccination. Similarly, no postsecondary education facility can require staff, students or prospective students to disclose their vaccination status. Businesses in the Commonwealth would not be allowed to require customers to provide documentation of vaccination status (as currently occurs at some music venues, for instance) as a condition of entry or to receive services.

If passed, employees or applicants for employment can bring civil action against violators and receive $1,000 per day in punitive damages.

Other bills are similar, but not as far-reaching. BR 358, for example, only states that employers may not require vaccination as a condition of employment or ask an employee or applicant about their vaccination status while BR 65 prohibits the government from requiring “vaccine passports” — which are defined as “documentation that an individual has been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2” — to gain entry to government facilities or access to services.

Two bill requests — BR 353 and BR 432 — establish workers compensation for employees who suffer adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccinations and work for an employer that mandated vaccines. 

Last year, the legislature passed into law a bill that allowed Kentuckians to opt out of vaccinations. 

Anti-vaccine and anti-vaccine mandate rhetoric has been popular on the fringes of the right, but in deep red Kentucky, 74% of adults have had at least one jab, according to the latest available data from the state.

BR 359 takes aim at face masks, forbidding any policies that mandate face masks for any students enrolled in public schools or public postsecondary education institutions. The bill request prevents the government from mandating mask use at schools while also barring any school policies that would require masks. The bill request currently has five sponsors.

School Resource Officers

While bills passed in recent years mandated that schools in the Commonwealth have armed School Resource Officers on campus, Jefferson County Public Schools has so far operated without them. BR 440, introduced by four Republicans, could put more pressure on JCPS by setting an Aug. 1, 2022 deadline for school districts to assign armed SROs to all of their campuses.

The bill request also takes out language in the current law that allowed school districts to assign SROs “as funds and qualified personnel become available.”

JCPS has been without SROs since 2019 when its Board of Education voted to stop using law enforcement officers. But the debate over SROs in Louisville was rekindled in September after LMPD Chief Erika Shields called for JCPS to establish its own police force just hours after 16-year-old JCPS student Tyree Smith was shot and killed while waiting for his school bus in the West End.

LGBTQ And Gender Identity Bills

Two bill requests, BR 45 and BR 97 would amend Kentucky’s civil rights law to make gender identity and sexual orientation protected classes and prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation and financial transactions based on those traits.

Another bill request from Rep. Lisa Willner (D-Louisville), who is the prime sponsor on BR 45, prohibits mental health professionals from engaging in efforts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Six other Democrats have sponsored that bill.

BR 119, also from Willner, would require school districts to provide instruction on “healthy relationships” to students. That instruction would go beyond typical sex ed to talk about the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships, the harm of gender stereotypes and how to set boundaries. The instruction laid out in the bill would also provide students with “age appropriate information about gender identity and sexual orientation.”

Additionally, the bill request would prohibit schools from limiting the ability of a teacher to answer questions asked by students.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are fighting their own battle over gender identity. BR 154, which has 13 Republican sponsors, requires that any school “athletic activity or sport designated as ‘girls’ shall not be open to members of the male sex.” The bill defines the sex of a student as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Marijuana Bills

Kentucky is one of just 14 states in the nation not to have any kind of legalized marijuana — medical or otherwise. Nationally and locally, attitudes on weed have shifted in recent years, but efforts to get ganja legalized in some form in Kentucky have failed.

But lawmakers are back at it again and there are currently three bills in the works that, if successful, could legalize or decriminalize marijuana in some fashion. 

The two most ambitious bills are from Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D-Louisville).

One, BR 325, would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, mandating that a person of 21 years of age or older would not be subject to penalties for possession, use or cultivation of a personal use quantity of cannabis. A “personal use quantity” is described in the bill as up to one ounce of weed, up to five grams of resin or concentrate, cannabis products with up to 1,000 milligrams of delta-8 or delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol or five plants. 

A second bill, BR 123, could potentially have a more lasting effect as it seeks to pose a ballot question on decriminalization to voters. Beyond decriminalizing personal use amounts of cannabis like BR 325, the proposed constitutional amendment in the second bill includes language that could potentially provide a path to marijuana sales by saying that the General Assembly can “by general law regulate and control the production, processing, and sale of cannabis and cannabis-derived products.”

Perhaps in a better position to pass is a much more restrictive bill anticipated to be filed by Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) that would finally legalize medical marijuana. Nemes’ bill would legalize non-smokable forms of marijuana for serious medical conditions, allowing doctors to prescribe the drug to patients suffering from chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea. While extremely limited, the passing of a medical marijuana bill would mean that Kentucky is no longer one of the few states not to have any form of legal marijuana.

Last year, a medical marijuana bill introduced by Nemes was passed by the House in a 65-30 vote but was not considered by the Senate.

Speaking to the Courier Journal, Nemes was optimistic about his latest bill being passed, saying: "I would say we have a better chance now than we've ever had.”

Critical Race Theory

On another front line of the culture wars playing out in Kentucky’s legislature is critical race theory.

Neither BR 60 nor BR 69 even mention critical race theory, but both Republican-backed bills include — verbatim — much of the same cookie-cutter language that has been used in other anti-CRT bills across the country: Innocuous sounding lines about no race, sex, religion being superior and about how individuals cannot be inherently racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, sex or religion.

But to opponents of these bills, they are about stifling classroom discussion of current and historical systemic racism in the United States, an issue that has been brought to the forefront during the 2020 racial justice protest movement.

BR 69 would forbid any “formal or informal” classroom discussion as well as any materials that promote eight different concepts, including: 

-That “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, sex, or religion”

-That “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, sex, or religion, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, sex, or religion”

-That “meritocracy or traits such as hard work ethic are racist, sexist or oppressive, or were created by members of a particular race or religion to oppress members of another race or religion”

BR 60, which included much of the same copy and pasted language, also prohibited teaching the concept that “the Commonwealth or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

Students at public postsecondary education institutions would be exempt from any mandatory gender or sexual diversity training under the bill.

If BR 60 were to pass, schools in violation could see funds of $5,000 per day withheld by the state.

Meanwhile, Rep. Attica Scott (D-Louisville) has sponsored two bills that would seek to address systemic racism in the classroom.

BR 427 would see every middle and high school curriculum include instruction on the history of racism. That instruction would include “the transatlantic slave trade, the American civil war, Jim Crow laws, the black codes, desegregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, redlining and residential segregation.”

Another bill request sponsored by Scott, BR 853, would require middle and high school world history and civilization courses to teach about African civilizations. It would also require American history courses to teach about Native American history and cultures both before and after the founding of the country.

Savannah Maddox <3s Guns

Kentucky’s answer to Lauren Boebert, Rep. Savannah Maddox, loves guns and has introduced a slew of bill requests to give guns (and their people) more rights.

Kentucky already has permitless concealed carry, but a bill introduced by Maddox (R-Dry Ridge)  would make it so you only have to be 18 instead of 21 to legally tuck a pistol in your jeans without a permit. 

Another Maddox bill request, BR 967, would make it illegal for governmental bodies to do business with any companies that do not first produce an affidavit that they do not “discriminate” against any “firearm entity” or “firearm trade association.” The bill request goes on to describe discrimination as a company not doing business with firearm groups solely because they are firearm groups. 

BR 969 would repeal KRS 237.115, which allowed postsecondary education entities as well as state and local governments to prohibit and limit concealed weapons in facilities they own, lease or occupy. If you haven’t guessed yet, the bill is sponsored by Maddox.

Under BR 259, Kentucky would not comply with any potential federal regulations on firearms that did not exist under Kentucky law. Any state government official who tried to enforce a potential firearm regulation that was not also Kentucky law could be charged with a misdemeanor. Any federal agent who tried to enforce federal regulations in the Commonwealth would be subject to arrest by state or local law enforcement.

BR 208 — which, surprisingly was not introduced by Maddox — would get rid of sales and use tax on firearms and ammunition. 

There is at one bill request pushing back on Kentucky’s gun laws: Sen. Karen Berg’s (D-Louisville) BR 847 would mandate that firearms confiscated by law enforcement have to be destroyed. Currently, Kentucky law mandates that confiscated guns be auctioned off, a practice that has seen some firearms used in more crimes after they were taken off the streets.

Election Bills

BR 1060, introduced by Rep. Buddy Wheatley (D-Covington), would allow independents to vote in political primaries. Currently, Kentuckians have to register as a member of a political party by Dec. 31 of the preceding year to vote in its primary contest (meaning if you were registered as an independent instead of as a Republican or Democrat by last Friday, you’re not going to be eligible to vote in either party’s primaries on May 17). 

Nationally, advocates of open primaries have said that systems like Kentucky’s disenfranchise independent voters. Others, however, have worried that open primaries open up the candidate selection process to their enemies who may brigade candidates they see as weak with votes.

Another bill request sponsored by Wheatley, BR 307, would remove the straight ticket voting option from the ballot.

And a bill request Wheatley co-sponsored with Scott, BR 306, would extend Kentucky’s voting hours from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wheatley filed similar bill requests to BR 306 and BR 307 last year.

Raise Minimum Wage

After a bill they sponsored last year to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour across the board failed, Sen. Reginald Thomas (D-Lexington) and Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville) have pre-filed BR 91, a more scaled back bill that would gradually raise minimum wage to $15 an hour for large employers (more than 25 employees) and $12 an hour for small employers (less than 25 employees) over the next four years.

The bill request would set a minimum wage of $10 at all employers on the effective day of the act, with more increases coming on July 1 of every following year. Minimum wage in the Commonwealth is currently $7.25.

Also aiming to put more money in Kentuckians’ wallets is Attica Scott’s BR 322, which aims to give many residents of the Commonwealth a universal basic income of $1,000 per month. The idea of universal basic income — UBI to its fans — became popularized by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang in the 2020 election, but has not been implemented on any large scale level in the country (save for Alaska, which has paid out a yearly dividend to citizens since the 1980s thanks to oil money). 

Further Restrictions On Abortion

With the U.S. Supreme Court set to decide on the future of Roe v. Wade — which would see abortions banned in Kentucky instantly under a trigger law if justices overturn the landmark 1973 decision — abortion is already a massive issue in the country and in the Commonwealth this year.

Republican lawmakers in Kentucky are continuing to try to put even more restrictions on abortions here. An omnibus bill sponsored by Rep. Nancy Tate (R-Brandenburg) that Republicans plan on introducing during the legislative session would require minors to have the consent of parents or a judge to get the procedure, limit access to abortion medications and charge doctors with a Class D felony if they perform the procedure on a minor without consent of parents or a judge.

According to WFPL, the bill will not have any exceptions for women seeking abortions in cases of rape or incest.

The omnibus bill comes ahead of a November ballot question that will ask voters if they want to add a section to Kentucky’s constitution saying: “To protect human life, nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

That ballot question is the result of a bill filed by Republican lawmakers in last year’s session. 

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