Politics

State lawmakers return to Frankfort Tuesday after a break in this year’s General Assembly. With nearly two months left, the legislature is likely to consider major changes to the public education and criminal justice systems, giving the governor more power to reorganize university boards and altering the way medical malpractice lawsuits progress through the courts.

The newly Republican-controlled legislature approved a flurry of conservative legislation last month, including two anti-abortion bills, so-called right-to-work union regulations and a repeal of the elevated minimum wage on public construction projects.

Heading into the bulk of the session, legislative leaders say the pace won’t be as quick — the aforementioned bills were passed with the minimum five-day duration — but the concepts are still weighty.

The House and Senate reconvene at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, and Gov. Matt Bevin is scheduled to give his State of the Commonwealth on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Here’s some of what lawmakers will be debating:

Education Reform

Whether to allow charter schools to open up in Kentucky will be one of the biggest pieces of legislation considered this year. Only seven states in the country don’t allow charters.

Stymied by Democrats in previous sessions, Republicans are likely to approve a charter schools bill this session.

But questions remain over whether to allow charters to open up across the state or just in Lexington and Louisville, how to hold the organizations accountable and the specifics of how the institutions would be funded.

Lawmakers will also consider a major overhaul of the public education system that would change standardized testing for students and require school districts to develop their own teacher evaluation systems.

Criminal Justice Reform

Kentucky lawmakers will consider an extensive criminal justice reform bill designed to reduce the state’s prison population and save taxpayer money.

Among the provisions in a draft of the bill:

  • Raising the threshold from $500 to $2,000 for a theft offense to be considered a felony and raising the amount from $1,000 to $5,000 to be charged with a felony for missed child support payments
  • “No money bail,” allowing low-income Kentuckians charged with some crimes to be released from jail before trial even if they can’t afford to pay bail
  • Allowing companies to locate and employ prisoners inside prison walls

The bill is the product of Bevin’s Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council, which was created last year and includes 23 state officials, lawmakers and policy advocates from around the state.

University Reorganization

The governor would have power to remove and replace members of state university boards and other education boards under a new bill filed by Senate President Robert Stivers.

The governor would be able to exercise this power “if a board or council is unable to perform its statutory duties.”

The legislation comes in response to Bevin’s abolishment and replacement of the University of Louisville Board of Trustees last summer. A trial court ruled that the governor didn’t have the authority to remove board members without cause, but the governor argues he had to remove the members to bring the panel’s makeup into compliance with racial and political standards laid out in Kentucky law.

REAL ID

Kentucky hasn’t yet updated its driver’s license and ID card laws to bring the state into compliance with stricter standards approved by Congress more than a decade ago.

A bill to bring the state into compliance requires the cards to be issued by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet instead of local county clerk offices. It would also verify applicants for drivers’ licenses or ID cards using a national immigration database.

The measure has been opposed by Tea Party groups and the ACLU of Kentucky, citing privacy concerns.

Bevin vetoed a similar bill last year, but Kentuckians stand to face sanctions if a fix isn’t approved by the legislature soon.

Starting June 6, federal agencies such as military bases and nuclear facilities would stop accepting Kentucky drivers’ licenses if the state isn’t brought into compliance. If that’s still the case on Jan. 22, 2018, Kentuckians won’t be able to use drivers’ licenses to board domestic flights.

Medical Review Panels

Medical malpractice claims would be vetted by a panel of health care providers before the cases go to court under SB 4, filed by Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester.

Under the bill, the panel would render an opinion on the validity of the malpractice claim that would be attached to the case when it heads to court.

Supporters say medical review panels reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits and lower health care costs. Opponents say they add extra costs and make it harder for plaintiffs to win the cases.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.