Kentucky Politics

The Republican-led legislature passed a flurry of bills on the last day before Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period, including more than $200 million in tax breaks, controversial education policies and a measure ensuring Mitch McConnell is replaced by a Republican if he leaves office.

And the legislature continued to weaken Beshear’s powers during the pandemic, passing a measure to fine the governor’s office more than $900,000 if it spends any federal coronavirus relief money without the legislature’s approval.

If Beshear vetoes any of the bills, lawmakers can easily override him when they return for the final two days of session on March 29 and 30.

But any bills lawmakers pass on those final days will not be veto-proof.

Several high-profile bills didn’t make it across the finish line ahead of the veto period, including Senate Bill 211, the measure making it a crime to insult a police officer and Senate Bill 5, which sought to provide liability protections for businesses during the pandemic.

Here’s some of what passed on Tuesday:

Tax Breaks

Lawmakers passed bills that included more than $200 million in tax breaks on the final day of the veto period, while not passing any measures that increase revenues for the state.

House Bill 249, the legislature’s annual revenue bill, revives the film tax credit with a cap of $75 million, and increases the historic preservation tax credit from $5 million to $100 million.

Rep. Pamela Stevenson, a Democrat from Louisville, said the legislature needs to find ways to generate more money.

“When we continue to give tax credits and tax breaks to those who need them the least, and there’s no proof that it works, and  hasn’t worked because we’d have money in the bank,” Stevenson said.

The legislature also passed a controversial school choice bill that creates a $25 million tax credit program for people who donate to education opportunity accounts.

The tax breaks come as Kentucky is set to receive $2.4 billion from the federal coronavirus relief bill, which includes language barring states from using the funds to cut taxes.

Rep. Jason Petrie, a Republican from Eklton, said he was confident lawmakers weren’t breaking the law.

“Since we already have these tax credits in effect and these are modifications not upward, but downward, there should be no adverse effect,” Petrie said.

The Senate passed House Bill 372, which provides $15 million in tax breaks to companies that open data centers in Kentucky and a $5,000 per year tax break for people who work from home for out-of-state companies. It did not pass the House before the veto period.

Beshear COVID Relief Penalty

The legislature passed House Bill 405, which includes language that would require Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration to pay more than $900,000 into the state’s rainy day fund if they spend federal coronavirus relief money without the legislature’s approval.

Kentucky is set to receive $2.4 billion in relief money that can be used for coronavirus-related expenses like vaccines and testing, but also for needs like infrastructure investment and boosting salaries of essential workers.

The legislature already barred Beshear from accessing the funds in the state budget that passed earlier this week.

The bill, which was not publicly available Tuesday night, would also boost funding to Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s office to hire personnel and investigate crimes related to the pandemic.

Raising Felony Threshold

The legislature approved House Bill 126 raising the threshold for felony theft, a criminal justice reform measure that has been proposed for years and would reduce the number of people charged with felonies.

Kentucky currently has one of the lowest standards in the nation for what counts as felony theft.

Under current law, stealing anything worth more than $500 in Kentucky can be charged as a Class D felony, meaning it is punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years, a fine and revocation of civil rights.

Under the bill, that threshold will be raised to $1,000.

U.S. Senate Vacancies

The legislature passed Senate Bill 228, changing how Kentucky governors fill vacancies for Kentucky’s seats in the U.S. Senate.

The bill would ensure Kentucky’s senior Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell would be replaced by a Republican if he leaves office before the end of his term in 2026.

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat from Louisville, accused Republicans of making a power grab.

“This is what people hate about politics: changing the rules because the person that was elected to the executive office was not in the majority’s party,” Marzian said.

Instead of picking whomever they want, Senate Bill 228 would require governors to pick a replacement from a list of three nominees selected by the state party of the departing senator.

After that, there would be a special election with a so-called “jungle primary” where top vote-getters would go to a runoff election if no candidate won more than 50% of the vote.

Weakening Worker Safety

Lawmakers passed House Bill 475, which blocks Kentucky’s Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission from having safety regulations that are more strict than federal regulations.

Sen. Robbie Mills, a Republican from Henderson, said the bill would get rid of bureaucratic regulations for businesses.

“This bill would not harm Kentucky workers because they would still be protected by the same federal regulations,” Mills said.

Kentucky is one of 28 states that operate their own occupational safety programs.

Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, said the state should be left in charge of the state’s worker safety rules.

“It makes no sense to me. There are numerous places where Kentucky state law is less or more stringent than federal law for very good reasons. And that’s because we in Kentucky know what our workers need,” Hatton said.

Election Reform

The bipartisan election reform bill passed out of the legislature and now awaits Beshear’s signature.

House Bill 574 allows for three days of early voting, county “vote centers” where people can vote no matter their precinct, and speeds up the process of removing those who have moved out-of-state from voter rolls, among other changes.

Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams celebrated the bill’s advancement in a statement.

“Mere months ago, no one would have thought that making these election improvements permanent would be possible. Our legislators deserve enormous credit for making Kentucky’s election system a national model in the 2022 elections and beyond,” Adams wrote.

Water District Late Fees

The legislature passed House Bill 272, which allows water districts to charge 10% late fees even though the state’s Public Service Commission issued a moratorium of late fees during the pandemic.

The bill also allows all public utilities to cut off services if customers are late on their payments, even if a moratorium has been issued.

Sen. Johnnie Turner, a Republican from Harlan, voted against the bill, saying it would hurt people struggling with flooding over the last month.

“This is just a totally bad bill for the poor people in eastern Kentucky where I live and there’ll be many of them without water,” said Turner. 

“There’s no recourse because they can’t discriminate, it says they shall make them pay those penalties.”

Broadband Funding

Lawmakers set aside $250 million to boost access to broadband internet in Kentucky’s underserved areas with money from Kentucky’s share of the federal coronavirus relief package.

House Bill 320 only allows $50 million of the funds to be spent before April 2022.

Republican Senate Pro Tem David Givens said lawmakers were “planting the seed” and could make more decisions about funding in the future.

 “Let’s get people doing it right before we start over-funding or funding in ways that cause potential mischief or poor investments,” Givens said.

The move comes as Kentucky is set to receive $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money that can be used for coronavirus-related expenses and infrastructure projects.

Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey said he doesn’t like the “piecemeal” approach Republican lawmakers are taking to using the coronavirus funds.

“Today we are making a change in a bill where we are putting federal money into this legislation without knowing exactly the guidelines and everything that goes along with that,” McGarvey said.

Republican Lawmakers passed a state budget on Monday that blocks the governor from accessing the relief funds without approval from the legislature.

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