During the upcoming Kentucky General Assembly, lawmakers will consider taking up a variety of proposals like a new attempt to change state worker pension benefits, funding for charter schools and limiting citizens’ right to sue other individuals and businesses.
Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office for the third year in a row, meaning they won’t need any help from Democrats to pass bills or constitutional amendments if they can stay united.
But there are still divisions within the legislature’s GOP ranks, especially when it comes to whether or how to overhaul retirement benefits for state workers in an attempt to address the state’s $38 billion pension debt.
Because 2019 is an election year for statewide offices like governor and attorney general, the session will also serve as an arena for candidates inside and out of the legislature to try and curry favor with voters.
The General Assembly lasts for a total of 30 working days between Jan. 9 and Mar. 31.
Unlike last year’s legislative session, this is not an official “budget writing year,” so it’ll be harder to pass bills that deal with money. This year it takes a two-thirds majority vote to pass bills dealing with the budget or taxes instead of a constitutional majority (half plus one).
Here are some of the issues lawmakers will likely consider:
Kentucky has one of the worst funded pension systems in the nation with an estimated $38 billion unfunded liability — the amount of money needed to pay current retirees and future ones who are already in the system.
Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican leaders of the legislature argue that the state has to weaken retirement benefits for future state workers in order to minimize the state’s financial risk. They have largely ignored calls to raise revenue with proposals like opening the state up to casino gambling, closing tax loopholes or increasing taxes.
The state Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s most recent attempt to overhaul pension benefits for most future and some current state workers, saying that lawmakers rushed the bill to passage without following proper procedure.
Now Bevin and legislative leaders say they’ll pass a new proposal, but so far they haven’t been on the same page on a single bill.
Last year’s pension bill drew massive protests from teachers and other state workers.
The legislature passed a bill allowing charter schools to open in Kentucky back in 2017, but they didn’t create a permanent funding mechanism for the independently managed but publicly funded schools.
Though Bevin has advocated for charter schools and has stocked the state’s top education positions with charter adherents, lawmakers have been wary of passing a funding mechanism amid budget strains and intense opposition from teacher advocates.
In order to gin up support from rural lawmakers, one proposal is to restrict charter schools to more populated areas like Lexington and Louisville.
Criminal Justice Reform
Amid a surge in Kentucky’s incarcerated population, some influential state officials and lawmakers have renewed the call for the legislature to change its criminal justice code and increase opportunities for drug treatment.
One proposal would overhaul the state’s bail system, no longer requiring low-risk defendants to pay bail in order to be released from jail while awaiting trial. Similar proposals in recent years have failed amid opposition from locally elected judges and prosecutors.
Last year, the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down a law that required malpractice lawsuits against doctors and other health care providers to be reviewed by a panel of doctors before they could be heard in court, saying the policy “delays access to the courts.”
The “medical review panel” law passed in 2017, the first year Republicans had full control of the legislature in state history.
Now Republican leaders say they are considering policies that would enshrine the medical review panel policy in the state constitution and allow the legislature to set caps on damages that can be recovered in a lawsuit.
Though state lawmakers aren’t up for re-election this year, the state offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor and treasurer are.
Candidates are bound to weigh in on legislative priorities and those who are sitting lawmakers will use their positions to unofficially campaign ahead of the May primary elections.
Gov. Bevin said he is running for re-election, though he hasn’t officially filed to do so. So far, only one other Republican appears to be angling for a run — East Bernstadt Republican Rep. Robert Goforth.
Goforth was the only Republican to vote against the pension bill last year and has filed a bill that would ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Republican Congressman James Comer, who lost to Bevin by 83 votes in the 2015 primary election, has hinted at running if Bevin doesn’t.
Democrats in the race include Attorney General Andy Beshear — who successfully sued to block last year’s pension bill — former Auditor Adam Edelen, and Rocky Adkins, who leads the Democratic minority in the House.
Trouble In Paradise
Republicans have control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, but divisions remain between Gov. Bevin and some GOP members of the legislature — especially when it comes to how to address the pension issue.
Bevin recently got into a public spat with a top legislative Republican after Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer claimed lawmakers “begged” Bevin to not call a special legislative session on pensions last month, which ended up failing.
There is also an anti-Bevin faction that includes some Republicans in the House stemming from Bevin’s demand that former House Speaker Jeff Hoover resign his seat amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Last year, the legislature overrode Bevin’s vetoes of budget and revenue bills.
After last year’s shooting at Marshall County High School that killed two 15-year-old students, lawmakers have held a series of hearings to discuss school safety.
Most proposals have focused on finding ways to boost security at schools through facility upgrades and encouraging districts to hire resource officers.
Republican leaders have ignored calls for new gun restrictions. Last summer, Gov. Bevin said that parents should lock up their guns if they have kids in the house, but wouldn’t go so far as to support a law requiring it.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is putting together a bill that would legalize the use and growth of marijuana if a doctor prescribes it. Though the proposal has more support than it has had in recent years and will likely be discussed, leaders of the legislature and Gov. Bevin still haven’t thrown their support behind it.
Casino Gambling, Sports Betting
Lawmakers have for years proposed bills that would allow casinos to open up in Kentucky in order to generate revenue for the state’s over-strapped budget. Supports say the proposal would generate between $250 million and $1 billion in tax revenue and licensing fees in its first year.
Another proposal would legalize sports betting after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a nearly 30-year ban last year. Supporters estimate that proposal would generate between $6.5 million and $26 million for the state every year through licensing and taxes.