Kentucky Politics

State lawmakers will return to Frankfort on Jan. 7 for the next legislative session, a nearly four month period to write a new state budget and pass bills into law.

The session will be one of the few times in state history that the full legislature (including both the House and Senate) is controlled by a single political party, and the governor’s office will be controlled by a different party. (The last time was from 1968 until 1971 when Republican Gov. Louie Nunn served at the same time as a solidly-Democratic House and Senate.)

Incoming Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has said he wants to find points of compromise with the Republican-led legislature, but the session will likely reveal deep divisions in how to fund state government and whether or not to raise more revenue.

Budget

Those budget discussions will be complicated: state economists predict that Kentucky’s revenue will grow only slightly over the next two years. Meanwhile state expenses are expected to increase, especially in the realm of funding for pensions, corrections, Medicaid and a massive school safety bill.

House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican from Prospect, said that budget writers will have to work within the confines of how much money the state can bring in.

“We always have revenue worries as we put together a budget. It just means we will utilize the numbers we have available to us and make the best decisions we can as we move forward in constructing a budget,” Osborne said.

State law requires new governors to submit their budget proposals by the 15th day of the legislative session, which is Jan. 28 this year.

Though governors get a major platform to advocate for their initiatives, writing a budget and passing laws will largely be controlled by the legislature, especially with both legislative chambers controlled by the same party.

Governors can veto all or part of bills that pass out of the legislature, but lawmakers can easily override those vetoes with a majority vote in each chamber.

Kentucky has about $21 billion in state revenue to work with when crafting a two-year budget. Fourteen percent of that total is taken up by pension funding, which has been boosted in recent years to keep the system from failing.

Meanwhile Kentucky’s prison population is at an all-time high and continues to rise and the state will be required to chip in more money to cover its expanded Medicaid population over the next two years.

Beshear has also advocated for several costly initiatives — an across-the-board $2,000 raise for teachers, reversing cuts to higher education and a boost to K-12 funding.

To fund those efforts, Beshear has advocated for legalizing casino gambling and taxing the proceeds.

Republican leaders like Senate President Robert Stivers have said legalizing casinos is a non-starter. But Stivers said there might be room for compromise on legalizing sports betting.

“Casino gambling, I think it’s fast, it’s got all the bells and whistles, I think it has the potential of being very addictive. I don’t think sports wagering does,” Stiver said.

“I don’t think [sports betting] generates the money that has been predicted. So I’m really ambivalent. Not really supportive, not in opposition to it.”

Potential Compromises

Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, predicted that sports betting, an anti-vaping bill and medical marijuana might be issues that Republicans and Democrats can move forward on in 2020.

But McGarvey also said that there will be more pressure on lawmakers to boost education funding following Beshear’s election, which was buoyed by educators.

“We have a constitutional obligation in Kentucky to provide every child that walks up to a schoolhouse door with a good education,” McGarvey said. “It’s a myth that we’ve held public education harmless over the last decade, both parties.”

In the wake of a fatal shooting at Marshall County High School in 2018, this year the legislature passed a school safety law requiring schools to upgrade security systems and hire more school counselors and school resource officers.

The law comes with a $121 million price tag that lawmakers haven’t come up with a way to fund yet.

Stivers said the legislature is committed to funding the law, but that the effort would likely be phased in.

“I don’t know if we have enough resources to actually do what the funding would allow us to do,” Stivers said. “Particularly school counselors, I don’t know if we have the number of individuals that could be put into those places just yet.”

Changes In Membership

The legislative session will begin with some slight changes in membership. House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, a Democrat, stepped down from his seat to work in the Beshear administration.

Democrats made history by electing Louisville Rep. Joni Jenkins to take over as the minority leader, the first time a woman has led a legislative caucus in state history.

Republicans will have supermajorities — more than 60 percent of the seats — in both the state House of Representatives and Senate during this year’s legislative session.

Democrats currently have 37 seats in the 100-member House following the resignation of Adkins and Rep. Dennis Keene, who also took a job in the Beshear administration. Republicans have 61 seats.

Special elections will be held in the districts vacated by Adkins and Keene early on during the legislative session.

In the 38-member Senate, Republicans will have 28 seats, Democrats will have 9 and there will be one vacancy following the resignation of Republican Sen. Dan Seum of Louisville.

A special election for Seum’s seat will be held on Jan. 14. The candidates are former Gov. Matt Bevin’s deputy labor secretary Mike Nemes, a Republican, and Fairdale High School teacher Andrew Bailey, a Democrat.

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