Kentucky Politics

The Republican-led Kentucky legislature overrode 17 of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes on Wednesday, reversing his actions on bills dealing with the state budget, charter schools, public assistance, abortion and a ban on transgender athletes from participating in girls sports.

The second-to-last day of the annual legislative session was briefly interrupted by a tornado warning shortly before 9:00 p.m., though lawmakers only took a half-hour break before resuming the rapid-fire veto overrides.

Lawmakers only have one more day to consider overriding Beshear’s vetoes and passing any new legislation before the end of the session.

There are several other measures advancing at the last minute, including another tornado relief bill and a fix to a “drafting error” that would create criminal penalties for teachers who don’t follow new requirements about how they address race and U.S. history in the classroom.

Since the session ends at midnight Thursday evening, lawmakers won’t have an opportunity to override Beshear’s vetoes of any bills that pass in these final days. Most of the new laws will take effect this summer, 90 days after the session ends. Some that have an “emergency clause” attached to them, like the new abortion regulations, will take effect immediately.

Budget and Taxes 

Both legislative chambers voted to override several of Beshear’s line item vetoes to the two-year state budget, though lawmakers did agree to retain several “technical” changes the governor made to the spending plan.

House Bill 1 would offer modest increases for critical state services and leave about $1 billion unspent. It includes raises for state employees, full funding for all-day kindergarten, money to rehab state parks and assistance for the state’s pension systems.

Beshear rejected 22 sections of the bill, including parts that would have provided raises to statewide elected officials and given the state attorney general and treasurer more power.

On the House floor, Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton of Whitesburg said one of the items Republicans are overriding would remove executive branch offices from the Capitol annex without input from the governor’s office. 

“That veto was about the hard to understand and seemingly fairly petty removal of executive branch offices from the annex,” Hatton said. 

Lawmakers also voted to override Beshear’s veto of House Bill 8, which will lower the state’s income tax from 5% to 4.5% next year. According to an official estimate, the bill will cost the state more than $1 billion per budget cycle. It also creates a path to lower the income tax even further every year, and expands the sales tax to new services like rideshares and marketing services.

Education

Lawmakers rejected Beshear’s vetoes of several education bills, including measures to fund charter schools, ban trans athletes from playing girls sports and create new requirements for how teachers talk about race and U.S. history in the classroom.

Both the House and Senate voted to override Beshear’s rejection of the anti-trans bill, Senate Bill 83. The bill’s sponsor, Henderson Republican Sen. Robby Mills, said the bill would protect girls who don’t want to compete against transgender girls. Similar measures have been blocked in other states for violating the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The legislature also voted to override Beshear’s veto of Senate Bill 1, which shifts power over school curriculum and principal hiring decisions from local councils to superintendents. It would also set parameters for how teachers talk about race and U.S. history in school.

Republican lawmakers said a “drafting error” ended up in the final version of the bill, which creates criminal penalties for teachers who violate the measure. The bill’s sponsor, Campbellsville GOP Sen. Max Wise, promised a “fix” would be inserted into a separate bill advancing in the legislature.

The Legislature also voted to override Beshear’s veto of the charter school funding bill, House Bill 9. The measure will require school districts to send a portion of their funds to charter schools approved in their areas and mandate the creation of charter schools in northern Kentucky and Louisville.

Abortion

Minutes after lawmakers overrode Beshear’s veto of House Bill 3, the omnibus abortion bill, the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood announced the would file lawsuits to try and block the legislation from taking effect.

The measure would ban abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, mirroring the Mississippi abortion ban currently being deliberated by the U.S. Supreme Court. It would also create new regulations for abortion medication: requiring a doctor’s visit before it can be prescribed, and banning it from being sent through the mail. And it would make it harder for minors to access the procedure by raising the standard for judges to approve it without parental consent.

Sen. Karen Berg of Louisville said the legislature is regulating abortion access out of the state. As a result, she says maternal mortality rates will go up. “And when I say you are killing women I am not talking theoretically, I’m talking actual women.”

Republican Rep. Stephen Meredith of Leitchfield said he was voting in favor of the measure on behalf of babies aborted following the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe V. Wade. 

“This is a stain upon our country. It’s our greatest sin. It needs to be reversed.” Meredith said. 

Tax overhaul

The legislature overrode Beshear’s veto of House Bill 8, which will lower Kentucky’s income tax rate from 5% to 4.5% next year, and create a path to lower the rate even further in the future. Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner of Louisville rallied to defend the governor’s override, saying the dollars could be better spent helping vulnerable residents.

“This is not a time for us to gamble away general fund dollars,” Willner said. “People are feeling left out of a process, they are feeling their videos are not being heard.”

The plan would cost the state about $1.4 billion every budget cycle, and expand the state’s 6% sales tax to new services like ride shares, short term housing rentals and marketing services.

Republican Party of Kentucky spokesperson Sean Southard said he believes that Democrats will have a hard time justifying voting for a tax cut ahead of the next election.

“I’d hate to be a Democrat who voted against cutting the income tax come this November,” he wrote on Twitter.

Tightening requirements for public benefits

House Bill 7 will create new requirements for people to keep public benefits like Medicaid and food assistance. Lawmakers easily overrode Beshear’s veto of the bill.

Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond of Louisville said the bill will put up new barriers that will make it more difficult for vulnerable Kentuckians to receive essential services. She said it will create new red tape, worsen outcomes for those who lose assistance, and create higher costs for taxpayers. 

Raymond said the bill doesn’t accomplish what supporters said it would.

“It’s not worth passing a bill that doesn’t catch fraud or help people out of poverty,” she said. 

Bill co-sponsor Republican Rep. David Meade of Stanford said the bill would cut down on fraud and is a “good start.”

Louisville Democratic Rep. Attica Scott of Louisville, called it the “empty bellies bill” because it would make it harder for Kentuckians to access public assistance. She said tens of thousands of people would lose food assistance and Medicaid under the bill.

Stripping executive power 

Lawmakers overrode Beshear’s vetoes of several measures limiting his authority and empowering offices currently held by Republicans, like the attorney general and state treasurer.

House Bill 335 will limit the governor’s ability to appoint members to the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council and other state agencies.

Democrats said they were fearful that several pieces of legislation that the House was voting to override encroached on the executive branch’s authority to govern.

“This is yet another attempt to strip the governor of his powers, or her powers,” said Louisville Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian. 

House Bill 740 will reduce the number of times candidates have to report campaign finance contributions and expenses. 

And lawmakers overrode Beshear’s line-item veto of state budget bills that would give statewide officials and legislators a raise. Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville said Republicans were greedily giving themselves pay bumps.

“When we couldn’t find money to give teachers a raise we found money to give ourselves a raise. That’s appalling,” Marzian said.

Gray Machines

After weeks of little movement on the bill, the Republican-led Senate passed a bill that would ban slot-like gambling machines from the state. The measure faced resistance from within GOP ranks, but passed 24-13 and now goes to the House. 

More than a half-dozen Republicans spoke against the measure. Sen. Adrienne Southworth of Lawrenceburg said the horseracing industry has a monopoly over gambling in Kentucky, but opposed the bill to protect small businesses.

Republicans Sen. Mike Wilson of Bowling Green said the machines are eating into profits that benefit veterans groups through regulated charitable gambling. 

“A vote against this bill is a vote against veterans,” Wilson said.  

Tornado and big changes for Louisville

The Senate overrode Beshear’s veto of House Bill 314, a measure that would overhaul Louisville’s governance, just as the city’s residents began taking shelter amid a tornado warning. The bill allows new cities to be formed in Jefferson County, and limits Louisville’s mayor to two terms. 

Louisville Democratic Sen. David Yates spoke against the bill as weather alerts buzzed on lawmakers’ phones in Frankfort.

“I vote no because I want to slow down, I want to make sure they’re protected,” Yates said. “I want to make sure they don’t get a poison pill they can’t afford.”

Lawmakers passed a few more bills before taking a recess to seek cover amid the worst of the weather. 

Courier Journal Reporter Joe Sonka live tweeted from the basement of the legislature where Republican Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester sat in a booth beside Democratic Sen. Karen Berg of Louisville. 

They returned about a half hour later. 

This story has been upated.

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