Politics

This year’s Kentucky General Assembly was book-ended by turmoil, but over the course of nearly four months the Republican-led legislature was still able to wrangle the votes to approve politically volatile policies like changing pension benefits for public workers and overhauling Kentucky’s tax code amid intense protests from public workers, especially teachers.

The legislature also passed a variety of conservative measures like new abortion restrictions, an expansion of the state’s gang penalties and an overhaul of Kentucky’s workers compensation system.

And most importantly, after taking control of both legislative chambers for the first time in history last year, the 2018 session was the first time in Kentucky history that Republicans were solely in charge of the budget-writing process.

But crafting the spending plan wasn’t as harmonious as some might have imagined and intra-party fighting between Republicans in the legislature and Gov. Matt Bevin became more caustic than ever.

Here are some of the major issues that lawmakers had to tackle, along with some of the big pieces of legislation that passed out of — and failed in — this year’s General Assembly.

Hoover Scandal

In January, the legislative session kicked off with a surprise. Rep. Jeff Hoover’s name was still affixed to the House Speaker’s chair, despite earlier saying he would resign from the leadership position in the wake of reports revealing that he and three other House Republicans had secretly settled a sexual harassment complaint made by a staffer.

Two months before, Hoover had tapped House Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne to preside over the House. But on the first day of session, Hoover made it known that he was reconsidering his resignation from the Speakership.

Ryland Barton | wfpl.org

Jeff Hoover

Gov. Matt Bevin had called for Hoover and the other lawmakers to fully resign and the House ended up launching a special committee to determine whether Hoover should be expelled from the chamber.

But after a fiery speech in which he accused Gov. Bevin and others of conspiring against him, Hoover submitted his official resignation, formally relinquishing the speaker’s duties to Osborne. The special committee disbanded.

Still, a complaint accusing Hoover and the three other GOP representatives of violating House ethics rules proceeded with the Legislative Ethics Commission.

In a settlement with the commission’s prosecutor, Hoover ended up officially admitting he broke ethics rules by exchanging sexually-charged text messages with the staffer. He was fined $1,000, but kept his seat representing the 83rd District in the House.

The commission dropped the charges against GOP Reps. Brian Linder of Dry Ridge, Jim DeCesare of Bowling Green and Michael Meredith of Oakland, citing a lack of evidence against them.

The scandal was another reminder that the Kentucky legislature has no explicit policy forbidding sexual harassment.

House Bill 9 would have made it an official violation for lawmakers or other employees to sexually harass others, but it stalled.

Pension Changes, Protests

Gov. Matt Bevin promised to call a special legislative session last year for lawmakers to hammer out changes to the state’s tax code and ailing pension systems. But the issues proved to be too complicated and politically volatile for Bevin to pull the trigger on a special session, especially after the House was thrown into disarray in the wake of the Hoover harassment bombshell.

Bevin and Republican leaders of the legislature unveiled a plan last fall that would have cut pension benefits for current and future state workers, prompting intense backlash from public employees.

About a month into the regular session, legislative leaders unveiled a new plan — Senate Bill 1 — that scaled back much of Bevin’s proposal, but it still would have made major changes to benefits received by current employees and retirees. Especially controversial was a provision that would have lowered retirement cost of living adjustments for all teachers, including retired ones.

Ryland Barton | wfpl.org

Teachers protest the pension bill on March 30, 2018.

That’s when state workers — especially teachers — began their near-constant protest at the General Assembly. Senate Bill 1 ended up dying in dramatic fashion after Senate leaders scheduled it for a vote and then were forced to cancel it because the legislation didn’t have enough support to pass while teachers and other public employees packed the State Capitol to loudly protest.

After the failure of Senate Bill 1, Republican leaders claimed that pension reform was dead, but on one of the last days of the legislative session, a new pension bill was unveiled and passed out of both the House and Senate within a matter of hours.

The measure was attached to a bill that previously dealt with governance of sewage districts and amounted to a scaled back version of Senate Bill 1. Almost all of the provisions applied to future workers — especially teachers — but it still made changes to how current workers can use saved-up sick days to help them qualify for retirement, among other provisions.

Over the ensuing days, thousands of teachers staged their largest and loudest rallies yet, forcing school districts to close because there weren’t enough substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who took off work.

Gov. Bevin ended up signing the bill, publicly stating he thought it was a “good start” but saying that the retirement systems still needed more reforms.

Budget And Tax Reform

Kentucky hasn’t brought in as much tax revenue as state officials predicted in eight of the last 15 years, leading to a series of budget shortfalls.

After Bevin didn’t call a special legislative session for lawmakers to deal with tax reform, it seemed very unlikely that the General Assembly would try to address the issue this year.

But then in a surprise reveal on one of the final days of the legislative session, Republican lawmakers unveiled a plan that they said would raise more than $480 million in new tax revenue over the next two years.

The plan expands Kentucky’s six percent sales tax to 17 new services, including automotive repairs, pet grooming, gym memberships and laundry services.

It also raises the cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack to $1.10.

The increases helped lawmakers set aside more money for public education — at least more money than was planned for in Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget — and lower taxes for wealthier people and corporations in the state.

Gov. Bevin vetoed both the budget and revenue bills, prompting another mass rally from teachers, who called for lawmakers to override the veto because of the increased education funding.

Lawmakers ended up overriding both vetoes despite ardent requests from Bevin to not do so.

Bevin’s Comment About Teachers And Sexual Assault of Children

Hours after the legislature overrode Bevin’s vetoes of the budget and revenue bills on the penultimate day of the legislative session, he held an impromptu press conference outside of the Capitol and made a shocking statement to reporters.

Bevin said that by taking off work to protest in Frankfort, teachers had neglected their students, leaving children vulnerable to sexual assault and poisoning.

“Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of children today were left home alone?” Bevin asked reporters, according to a video posted on twitter by WDRB News reporter Marcus Green.

“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” Bevin continued.

“I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them.”

The comment quickly drew backlash from lawmakers of both parties and negative attention across the country.

The next day, the Republican-led state House of Representatives passed a resolution formally condemning Bevin’s statement as one of its final acts of the legislative session.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers advised that Bevin retract or apologize for making the statement.

“It hurts me that the things that have been done by this administration will be overshadowed by a statement that is indefensible,” Stivers said.

Two days after initially making the comment, Bevin released a video statement saying many people misunderstood and “did not fully appreciate” his message and apologizing for being unclear.

New Abortion Ban

After passing a handful of abortion restrictions last year, this year the legislature passed a ban on a common type of abortion after the 11th week in pregnancy that has already been challenged in federal court.

The new law would make it a felony for doctors to perform dilation and evacuation abortions — a procedure most commonly used to end second-trimester pregnancies.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit shortly after Gov. Matt Bevin signed the measure into law. A federal judge has temporarily blocked the law from going into effect while the challenge is pending.

Gang Bill

Lawmakers also passed House Bill 169, which would broaden the definition of criminal gangs, give longer prison sentences to those labeled as gang members and increase penalties for gang recruiting.

Gov. Bevin hasn’t yet signed the bill into law.

Supporters say the measure would discourage gang activity in the state, but opponents argue it would wrongly label some defendants as gang members and disproportionately affect African American communities.

Officials estimate the bill would cost Kentucky about $19.5 million more in incarceration costs over the next ten years.

No Net Metering Changes

A bill that would have changed how electric utilities compensate households with solar panels for putting extra energy back out onto the grid failed to pass the legislature.

The measure was pushed for by utilities, who say they have to pay solar households too much for the surplus energy — a one-for-one credit that can be applied to future electric bills.

Solar advocates said changing the current net metering rate would make it harder for people who install solar panels to get a return on their investments.

No New Gun Laws

Two sophomores at Marshall County High School were killed and 18 others were injured during a shooting in the school’s outdoor common area on January 23rd, two weeks before a shooting rampage at a high school in Parkland, Florida that left 18 people dead.

Hundreds of students from around the state held a rally on the State Capitol steps calling for lawmakers to do something to prevent future gun violence.

Several lawmakers filed proposals to try and prevent future school shootings, but none of them made it very far in the legislature.

Among the failed bills were a proposed requirement for school districts to employ at least one mental health professional for every 1,500 students, penalties for not locking up guns if children are around, arming teachers with guns and allowing local governments to pass their own gun restrictions.

Child Marriage Ban

Until this year, women and girls in Kentucky could get married at any age, as long as they were pregnant.

More than 11,000 minors were married in Kentucky between 2000 and 2017

But under Senate Bill 48, the marriage age is now raised to 18 years old, though 17-year-olds can still get married if they get a court order.

Marsy’s Law

The legislature passed “Marsy’s Law,” a state constitutional amendment that would create new rights for victims of alleged crimes like requiring courts to notify victims when a defendant released from custody.

The measure would also give victims the right to be present and testify at all court proceedings and the right to restitution from those convicted of committing a crime against them.

The proposed amendment doesn’t need to be signed by the governor, but will need majority approval by Kentucky voters during a referendum on Election Day this year to become law.

The ACLU of Kentucky opposes the measure, saying it would overburden the justice system and give accusers an advantage over the accused.

Kentucky Wired

After threatening to not fund the delayed statewide broadband project, on the final day of the legislative session lawmakers passed a bill funding the public-private partnership and authorizing the state to borrow $110 million to compensate private investors for expenses associated with delays.

Lawmakers have criticized the project’s financial arrangement and delays in securing agreements with owners of telephone poles and properties where the network’s fiber optic wires need to be installed.

Officials estimate that the project will be completed in 2020.

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