Kentucky Politics

Kentucky Republican lawmakers made good on their promise to push for conservative laws during this year’s legislative session, passing a long list of priorities they say voters have demanded by electing GOP supermajorities in both chambers of the statehouse.

Republicans passed bills tapping into national conversations about race, LGBTQ+ issues, abortion, the environment, taxes, public benefits and education.

Though Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear can veto the bills, there’s little he can do to stop them from becoming law.

Beshear has already signed dozens of less-controversial bills into law and has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to veto others. But because it only takes a majority of votes in each chamber to override a Kentucky governor’s veto, Republican lawmakers will easily be able to override any of Beshear’s actions.

These are some of the bills that have passed so far this year: 

Education

Early in the session, lawmakers followed on the heels of Beshear’s executive order in passing a bill allowing college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

Republicans concerned that transgender girls may have an unfair competitive edge in women’s sports passed legislation mandating athletes be listed as female on their birth certificates. 

The measure would apply to all women’s sports in grades 6 through 12, and college   meaning athletes like Westport Middle School student Fischer Wells would not be able play on the field hockey team she helped start.

Kentucky Republicans also joined conservatives across the country passing legislation to push back on anti-racist initiatives that they say make white students feel guilty and promote “victimhood” among students of color. 

The Kentucky bill mandates instruction be consistent with specific ideas and requires teachers to instruct from a list of speeches and documents, including Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time For Choosing” speech, in which he rails against welfare programs. The bill also tells teachers  “that defining racial disparities solely on the legacy of [slavery and Jim Crow] is destructive to the unification of our nation.”

Less than a year after conservative protesters began disrupting Jefferson County School Board meetings, lawmakers passed a bill mandating a 15-minute public comment period at local school board meetings.

Finally, Kentucky may join most of the rest of the country in establishing charter schools publicly funded but privately operated schools that can be run by for-profit businesses, nonprofits and sometimes the government.

That bill comes five years after the legislature first authorized charter schools and provides the funding mechanism that would allow them to get off the ground. The measure requires Kentucky school districts to fund approved charter schools within their borders. And it requires charter schools to be set up in Louisville and northern Kentucky. The charter school bill will likely face legal challenges if it becomes law.

Abortion

Kentucky is also likely to join other GOP-dominated states with a ban on abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. The measure mirrors the Missouri’s abortion law currently hanging in the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Supporters say it will pave the way for Kentucky to further restrict the procedure depending on the high court’s ruling. The bill also requires all abortion providers to examine patients in-person before authorizing medication.

At one point in the debate over the bill on the House floor, Republican Rep. Danny Bentley of Bentley falsely said the medication to induce abortion was the same chemical weapon used in the Holocaust to murder millions of Jews. Bentley, who is a pharmacist, later apologized.

Fiscal policy

When it comes to fiscal priorities, Republicans passed a two-year budget with modest increases for critical state services, raises for state employees and infrastructure funding while leaving about $1 billion unspent.

Republican leaders say the budget is fiscally responsible and leaves money aside for rainy days. But they also passed an expensive bill overhauling Kentucky’s tax code that will cost the state almost $1.4 billion over the next two years, according to an official analysis

The revenue bill creates a plan to incrementally reduce the income tax rate in the state until it’s eventually eliminated. Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Ryland Heights and chair of the Senate budget committee, said it’s an equal reduction for all taxpayers.

“When I hear the conversation about tax cuts for the wealthiest, I simply have to cringe at that misnomer,” he said.

The bill also expands the sales tax to services, from rideshares to advertising. Critics point out that wealthy people pay less in taxes as a proportion of their income than poor people and the measure will result in the state’s top earners saving more than the state’s most impoverished.

Also this year, laid off workers won’t be able to spend as much time receiving unemployment insurance benefits under a measure that narrowly passed the legislature despite bipartisan opposition.

The measure ties the number of weeks someone can get jobless benefits to the statewide unemployment rate, meaning the lower the unemployment rate, the less time someone can collect benefits. Since the state’s unemployment rate is currently below 4.5%, the maximum time someone can receive jobless benefits will decrease from 26 weeks to 12.

Similarly, Kentuckians who receive public benefits like food assistance or Medicaid will have to fulfill more requirements to stay in the programs under a bill that passed out of the state legislature Wednesday night.

The measure was scaled back this week, but still directs the state Health Cabinet to create a work requirement program for Medicaid beneficiaries to prove they are working, volunteering or doing community service in order to keep their health benefits.

Local control, executive authority

Republican lawmakers finally succeeded this year in passing a measure that allows suburban areas of Louisville to annex territory and new city governments to be set up within the metro government’s boundaries. That bill also will limit Louisville’s mayor to serving only two terms, instead of three. 

Republicans also continued to limit Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s power, passing a bill that ensures only Kentucky’s attorney general can challenge the constitutionality of bills passed by the Legislature. They also stripped the governor of the ability to appoint a majority of seats on the state’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

While much of the legislation passed follows national trends, Kentucky lawmakers have so far failed to send the governor legislation legalizing sports betting and medical marijuana. With only two days left in the session, those initiatives remain on life support along with the CROWN Act, which would prevent discrimination based on hairstyles. 

Climate change

As international leaders and scientists warn of impending climate catastrophe, Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation that would require financial companies working with the state to cease boycotts of the fossil fuel industry. If they don’t, the state has to divest all public investments from the firm.

On the House floor, the Chair of the House Natural Resources committee Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence said it was unfortunate that people “actually worship at the altar of the cult of climate change.” 

Gooch says he does not believe that fossil fuels are contributing to climate change, but he’s wrong. Climate change has already warmed Kentucky and will only get worse the longer humankind burns fossil fuels. 

As the planet warms, Kentucky will experience more extreme weather events, including more heat waves, droughts and floods. It even appears to be shifting tornado alley further into western Kentucky.

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