Kentucky Politics

Kentucky lawmakers shepherded dozens of bills through the legislature on the last day of this year’s session, quickly passing measures limiting open records laws, limiting no-knock warrants and paving the way for a constitutional ban on abortion.

The legislature also set aside more than $1 billion of state funds and federal coronavirus relief aid for a variety of programs, including funding all-day kindergarten, clean water and broadband projects across the state.

Ahead of the midnight deadline, Republican leaders adopted several procedures to speed up the process — limiting debate, dropping proposals into hollowed-out “mule bills” that already had a head start in the legislature and waiving posting requirements.

All bills that passed on the final days of the legislative session can be vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear – except the proposed constitutional amendment dissolving abortion rights – and lawmakers won’t have the opportunity to override any of his actions. The legislature won’t reconvene until Jan. 4 unless the governor calls a special session.

COVID Relief Funds & All Day Kindergarten

Kentucky lawmakers set aside more than $1 billion in state funds and federal relief aid to pay for a variety of projects like full-day kindergarten, repaying Kentucky’s unemployment insurance loan and boosting broadband internet, on the last day of the legislative session.

The stimulus spree also included money for school, water and wastewater construction and renovation projects authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The state received $2.4 billion from the federal relief plan — money that can be used on coronavirus-related expenses like vaccine programs, but also wide variety of infrastructure and other efforts.

The $140 million for local school districts for kindergarten funding was initially part of the controversial school choice bill passed by the legislature, but it was removed shortly before Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period.

With significant opposition among Republicans and Democrats, the legislature narrowly overrode Beshear’s veto of the school choice bill on Monday.

One of the key swing votes was Rep. Regina Huff, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee. In a Tweet on Tuesday, she said her vote in favor of the school choice bill was conditional on kindergarten funding.

Most Kentucky school districts already have full-day kindergarten and the money will allow them to offset expenses.

The legislature set aside $575 million in federal coronavirus relief money to help pay down Kentucky’s unemployment insurance loan, which the state took out after the start of the pandemic.

And it includes another $50 million to expand broadband internet in Kentucky — on top of the $250 million the legislature already set aside for rural broadband.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, said the extra $50 million would be “specifically for economic development opportunities for commercial industrial customers.”

The stimulus spending was spread across three bills — House Bill 382, House Bill 556 and Senate Bill 36, all of which were negotiated in the last hours of this year’s legislative session.
House Bill 556 includes $10 million for the West End Opportunity Partnership, a Tax Increment Financing program based in Louisville and $20 million for a revolving loan fund for rural hospitals. 

COVID Lawsuits

Lawmakers revived a bill providing legal protections to businesses worried about coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Senate Bill 5 was proposed by Senate President Robert Stivers earlier this year but didn’t pass ahead of Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period. On Tuesday the bill was gutted and replaced with a new version.

Rep. Ed Massey, a Republican from Hebron, said the bill would protect businesses trying to comply with guidelines.

“What’s protected is things…like understaffing. Or because a misunderstanding of perhaps the eternally moving and changing restrictions regarding mask mandates,” Massey said.

“With the changing executive orders, someone could go about their best efforts to assure their business was safe and then someone could contract COVID or transmit COVID and they could potentially be sued for liability.”

The bill would protect a long list of “essential service providers” from coronavirus-related lawsuits, including financial institutions, shipping services, restaurants, health care providers, schools, manufacturers and government agencies.

It also protects other business owners from liability as long as they follow “any executive action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The bill doesn’t create a duty of care — a legal requirement that businesses comply with the guidelines to protect others. The bill also does not shield essential businesses from lawsuits alleging gross negligence, or wanton, willful, malicious, or intentional misconduct.

Rep. McKenzie Cantrell said the bill is unnecessary because it would be hard for a court to pinpoint a business as the source of a coronavirus infection.

“This virus is everywhere. It would be really, really hard at this point for someone who contracts the virus to say for sure where they got it,” Cantrell said.

Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, said the bill would violate the state and U.S. constitution by denying access to the courts.

“I do trust our judicial system. I trust our juries and I trust our judges to weed out frivolous claims and to protect those who need protecting,” Hatton said.

Open Records

A bill shielding personal information about police, prosecutors, judges and their relatives passed out of the legislature after it was revived late in this year’s session.

Senate Bill 48 would allow the public officials and their families to request the removal of addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, birth dates and a variety of other records from government agencies.

The measure was originally limited to shielding addresses and locations of public officers, but was greatly expanded through a floor amendment filed late on Monday by Republican Rep. John Blanton.

Blanton, a retired police officer from Salyersville, said the bill would protect police officers and their families from being targeted.

“All we’re trying to do is provide protection to these particular individuals and their immediate families to prevent them from being targeted, from sometimes criminal behavior, injury or death to one of these family members,” Blanton said.

The bill amounts to a watered-down version of Blanton’s proposal to create civil and criminal penalties for people who publish personally identifying information about public officers.

The bill passed Monday night without being made available to the public. The Senate quickly passed the measure on Tuesday.

If Gov. Andy Beshear vetoes the measure, the legislature won’t have a chance to override him. This year’s legislative session ended Tuesday night.

Constitutional Ban On Abortion

The legislature passed a proposal to create a new section of the Kentucky Constitution saying that there is no right to an abortion in Kentucky.

House Bill 91 flies in the face of the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that guarantees abortion access and bans states from restricting the procedure before the point of fetal viability.

But since 2017, when Republicans took control of the Kentucky legislature for the first time in state history, lawmakers have passed several other proposals severely restricting abortions that have been blocked by federal courts.

Sen. Robbie Mills, a Republican from Henderson, said the bill would send a message that Kentucky strongly opposes abortion.

“We are a pro-life state and this is another step that we can take to secure that Kentucky will be a pro-life state into the future,” Mills said.

Because the bill would amend the state constitution, it has to be approved by Kentucky voters during a referendum in order to become law. Kentuckians will weigh in on the issue on Election Day in November 2022.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, criticized the measure as too extreme.

“Nothing in this amendment provides for any exceptions for rape or health of the mother. That takes a pretty extreme stance on what oftentimes we use as a political issue,” McGarvey said.

This story has been updated.

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