Kentucky Politics

Kentucky’s legislative session came to an end Thursday night with lawmakers passing dozens of new laws reflecting Republican priorities.

In total, lawmakers filed 1,165 bills this session. But for all the new laws legislators drafted this year, they left many more on the cutting room floor.

Democratic-sponsored efforts to protect vulnerable communities and teach the history of discrimination faced particularly steep fights in the Republican-controlled legislature. But even Republicans struggled to pass legislation on popular issues including sports betting and medical cannabis

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said his party was able to accomplish a lot during this year’s session, but wanted to do more.

“Now of course at the end of the session there are items that didn’t make it,” Thayer said  “I’m personally disappointed that we were unable to pass sports betting. We just don’t have the votes. I think that will change by next year.”

A number of issues related to taxation, criminal justice, the state’s two-year budget and public health also failed to see the light of day. That doesn’t mean they’re gone forever though, many are likely to return next year. 

Here’s a look at what got left behind:

Medical cannabis

Conservatives leaders remained wary of cannabis this session. Though the House passed a medical cannabis bill that would have allowed doctors to prescribe it for a narrow set of conditions, including multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. The bill has been altered significantly in recent years to try and garner more support from conservatives, but the Senate never took it up and decided instead to study the issue further

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has said he would consider taking executive action on the matter if lawmakers did not pass the bill.

Sports Betting

Republican sponsor Rep. Adam Koenig of Erlanger was hopeful that luck was on his side in passing sports betting, which is already legal in 33 other states and the District of Columbia. 

Similar bills have advanced in recent years, and like those other efforts, this one ran aground in the Senate where it could not gather enough support from conservative members to move forward.

The bill would have legalized most forms of sports gambling, including online poker and fantasy sports with revenues raised going toward the state’s ailing pension systems.

“Gray Machines”

After weeks of little movement on a bill to ban slot-like gambling machines from the state, the Republican-led Senate revived the bill, but it failed to cross the finish line in the House.

Several Republicans opposed the bill saying it would negatively impact businesses in their district. GOP Sen. Adrienne Southworth of Lawrenceburg said the horseracing industry has a monopoly over gambling in Kentucky, but opposed the bill to protect small businesses.

The CROWN Act

After failing to move for two years, lawmakers advanced the CROWN Act out of committee for the first time during this year’s session. The bill would extend discrimination protections to people who wear their hair with natural textures and styles, including braids, locks and twists. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee but never received a vote on the House floor.

Statewide “Fairness Law”

Advocates have for years pushed for the legislature to pass a “fairness law” banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in workplaces, housing and public accommodations, but the effort still hasn’t gained traction in Frankfort. So far, 22 cities around Kentucky have passed their own local fairness laws

Conversion Therapy 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed banning conversion therapy, the discredited method used to try and change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Despite support from Republicans, Democrats and advocates across the state, the effort didn’t get a hearing in committee.

Teaching the history of racism

Republicans passed legislation that would discourage teachers from defining racial disparities as a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and also failed to consider legislation from Louisville Democratic Rep. Attica Scott that would have required teachers to teach subjects including the slave trade, residential segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Cash bail

For years, criminal justice reform advocates have been trying to reform, or eliminate, Kentucky’s cash bail system because it disproportionately harms poor people who can’t afford to pay bail and end up spending long stretches in jail awaiting trial. But after years of hearings and making headway with opponents, many Republicans in the legislature this year took an opposite trajectory — seeking to restrict charitable bail organizations from bailing people out of jail for certain charges. That effort passed out of the House this year, but wasn’t ever taken up in the Senate.

Insulting police

In the wake of the racial justice uprising in 2020, former police officer and current Republican Sen. Danny Carroll of Benton has twice pushed legislation that would make it a crime to insult police. This year’s legislation would have enhanced penalties for rioting and offenses committed during the course of a demonstration. The bill never got a hearing in committee.

Public records public officials’ person details

Carroll also sponsored a bill that would have blocked public agencies from releasing personal details of a wide range of public officials including government employees and their family members. The bill passed out of the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee, but never made it to the House floor for a vote.

Youth and violent crimes

Children accused of violent crimes would have been able to be detained for up to two days under a bill that passed out of the House but failed to get a floor vote in the Senate. Republican sponsor Sen. Kevin Bratcher, of Louisville, said his bill addressed a rise in violent crime that has coincided with the pandemic. Opponents said the bill wouldn’t do anything to improve the rising rates of juvenile offenders. 

Tax breaks for data centers

A bill that would have granted large tax breaks to companies like Amazon and Facebook passed out of a House committee, but failed to get a floor vote. It would have exempted businesses that build data centers in Kentucky from sales and use taxes for 30 years. To qualify, they would have to invest at least $150 million and create 20 jobs in the first five years.

Tax rebates 

Senate Republicans proposed using Kentucky’s recent financial windfalls to give taxpayers a one-time $500 rebate on their taxes. The bill was intended to help Kentuckians deal with inflation, though it would have only applied to people who made enough money to pay income taxes in 2020. The plan was scrapped after budget negotiations with the House, which had its own expensive plan for Kentucky’s surplus–reducing the state’s income tax from 5% to 4.5% next year, and creating a path to reduce it even further in the future.

Grants for rural businesses

Lawmakers took a last minute pass at legislation that would establish a fund with up to $50 million worth of grants to attract businesses to rural areas.  After failing to pass a Senate committee early Thursday, lawmakers in the House revived the “Kentucky Rural Jobs Act” in a separate bill and quickly passed it without debate. The bill never made it to the Senate floor however. 

An analysis from the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy said it would be a boon for investment companies with no guarantees they would create jobs in rural areas of the state.  

Budget items: universal pre-K and teacher raises

With a record budget surplus in the bank and another one projected for the end of this fiscal year, Gov. Beshear proposed creating a universal pre-kindergarten program in Kentucky and giving teachers a 5% raise. 

Though Republican lawmakers agreed with many of Beshear’s budget proposals, including pay bumps for other state workers, they said local school districts should be the ones to decide if they have enough money to give teachers a raise. The final budget includes modest increases in education spending, like continued funding of full-day kindergarten, but advocates say it’s not enough and doesn’t keep up with inflation.

Banning vaccine and mask mandates

Two Republican-sponsored efforts that would limit how local government and state agencies handle the coronavirus pandemic passed out of the House but never advanced in the Senate. One of the proposals would have banned mask mandates, the other, vaccine mandates. 

House Bill 28, sponsored by Dry Ridge Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox, initially would have banned private employers from mandating vaccines, though the bill was altered after pushback from the business community.

In a related bill, public schools, universities and child care centers would have lost the ability to require masks in classrooms under a bill from Marion Republican Rep. Lynn Bechler. 

“Streamlining” utility rate cases

A bill introduced early in the session would have “streamlined” utility rate cases that go before state regulators. The measure would have curtailed the public participation by limiting the ability of ratepayers to intervene in rate cases. Under the measure, utilities would be the ones to make the call whether the public would be allowed to participate in evidentiary hearings. 

Bill sponsor Republican Jim Gooch of Providence withdrew the bill in late March. 

Deregulating feedlots 

Near the end of the session, outgoing Republican Sen. Matt Castlen of Owensboro added language to an unrelated bill that would have left Kentuckians living near intensive hog and chicken farms with no recourse to ask state regulators to investigate and address odor complaints and water pollution.

The bill was opposed by Beshear’s administration

“Should this become law, Kentuckians living near those agricultural operations would not be entitled to the same protections as those living near other types of facilities, like landfills or other odor sources,” said Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Spokesman John Mura. 

The bill, originally about improving dam safety, never received a vote after the unrelated language was added. 

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.