Kentucky Politics

It’s crunch time at the Kentucky Legislature. Lawmakers have just a few days left to pass last-minute bills, finalize a new two-year budget and override vetoes issued by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

With massive majorities in both chambers of the legislature, Republicans are firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to deciding what becomes law in Kentucky.

Conservatives have already passed, or plan to, bills that further restrict abortion in Kentucky, cut unemployment benefits, tighten public assistance, ban transgender girls from participating in girls sports and restrict how teachers talk about race and U.S. history in the classroom.

And with a heaping budget surplus projected for the end of this year, Republicans are debating whether and how to cut Kentucky’s income tax instead of reinvesting in state services.

Here’s a rundown of where we are in the 2022 legislative session:

Calendar

As of Monday, there are nine official working days left in this year’s legislative session, though the meetings are spread out over the next three weeks.

Lawmakers will meet five days this week, two days next week before a 10-day “veto period,” where Gov. Beshear will consider vetoing or signing bills. The legislature will then reconvene for two final working days—April 13 and 14—to consider overriding any of Beshear’s vetoes or passing new bills.

Republican leaders want to pass as much as they can before the veto period to preserve their ability to override the governor’s vetoes. Beshear would be able to reject any bills passed in the final two days and lawmakers wouldn’t have any recourse—the legislative session is required to end by April 15th.

Budget and Taxes

The main obligation for lawmakers this session is to pass a new two-year state budget. Legislators have a historic amount of money to play with when writing the spending plan due to a $1.1 billion budget surplus last year, a projected multi-billion-dollar surplus this year and infusions of cash from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act .

And while both the House and Senate budget plans have used some of that money for initiatives—for example, funding full-day Pre-K in the House version or revamping the state parks system in the Senate’s—Republican leaders of the legislature appear determined to give back much of that money to taxpayers.

The Senate has unveiled a plan to give Kentuckians up to $500 back on their 2020 state taxes, which would cost the state about $1.15 billion of the almost $2 billion projected surplus. Meanwhile the House wants to reduce the state income tax from 5% to 4% and expand the sales tax to 38 new services, which would cost the state about $900 million.

Since the House and the Senate differ on how to proceed with the budget, lawmakers will negotiate a final version of the spending plan in a conference committee during the final weeks of the session.

Vetoes

Gov. Andy Beshear has vetoed four bills this year and the legislature has overridden all of them — two of them on Monday night. 

Lawmakers voted to override Beshear’s veto of House Bill 4, which would cut the amount of time Kentuckians can receive unemployment benefits, and Senate Joint Resolution 150, which would end the coronavirus-related state of emergency once it becomes law.

Beshear rejected HB 4 last week, saying it would make Kentucky “one of the stingiest states in the country.”

The measure would tie the number of weeks someone can collect jobless benefits to the statewide unemployment rate, even though there are pockets of the state — especially eastern Kentucky — where unemployment far exceeds the statewide rate.

In his veto message on Friday, Beshear wrote that the measure would force unemployed people to move from rural areas and “continue to depopulate parts of eastern and western Kentucky.”

Rep. John Blanton of Salyersville was among a group of rural Republicans who opposed the override. 

“This is sadly going to be very detrimental to the people in my district, and I was hoping that maybe a few more colleagues would join me today, but I still  continually beg of you to vote no on this today,” Blanton said Monday night. 

Beshear also vetoed  SJR 150 last week, saying that ending the state of emergency would put about $50 million in federal food assistance funding at risk.

It’s very easy to override a governor’s veto in Kentucky. It only takes a constitutional majority in each legislative chamber, so 51 out of 100 seats in the House and 20 out of 38 seats in the Senate.

The other bills lawmakers voted to override are related to redistricting plans and currently being challenged in court.

Charter Schools

Though Kentucky legalized charter schools in 2017, the legislature never passed a permanent funding mechanism for them.

Support for the privately-run but publicly-funded schools is finicky in Kentucky, with advocates warning that the initiative would skim money from the traditional public school system.

A group of conservative lawmakers in the legislature has pushed to revive the concept in the state, and is once again trying to find a way to pay for charter schools. But there is dissent even among Republicans on the issue, with rural lawmakers skidding about charters undercutting local traditional schools.

The bill hasn’t begun its legislative journey yet and still awaits a vote in the House Education Committee.

Anti-trans bills

Conservative Republicans appear determined to ban transgender girls from playing in girls and women’s sports at the middle school, high school and college level in Kentucky.

Senate Bill 83 has passed both chambers of the legislature, but still needs one final vote in the Senate before heading to Gov. Beshear’s desk.

During a debate on the House floor last week, Ravenna Republican Rep. Bill Wesley explained his vote by saying “God hates sin” and that people should advocate against transgender issues.

“We need to encourage our children,” Wesley said. “If they are born a female, then we need to encourage them to be a female, and if they are born a male, then we need to encourage them to be a male.”

Anti-“critical race theory” bills

Republicans have floated competing proposals to mandate how teachers talk about race and U.S. history in the classroom.

Senate Bill 138 would discourage teachers from defining racial disparities as a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, saying that teaching such lessons is “destructive to the unification of our nation.” The measure would also require schools to include several speeches and documents in their lessons, including a speech Ronald Reagan gave endorsing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. The bill passed out of the Senate and awaits consideration in the Senate.

House Bill 487 would make it illegal to teach about institutional racism and would require schools to teach about American “victories” over “international socialism and communism.” Though the measure hasn’t advanced in the legislature yet, identical language has been proposed as an amendment to Senate Bill 1, which deals with school governance.

Medical Cannabis

House Bill 136 would allow doctors to prescribe cannabis to people with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic pain and nausea passed out of the House earlier this month.

The proposal has gained momentum in recent years, but still faces headwinds in the Senate, where leaders have expressed more skepticism.

A key former opponent in the Senate recently threw their weight behind the legislation. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Crofton, issued a statement saying he would support the bill, though not without hesitation.

Restricting public assistance

House Bill 7 would require “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients to prove they are working, volunteering or trying to find a job in order to keep their benefits. It would also create penalties for people who violate rules for federal food assistance, eventually permanently banning people from public assistance programs for repeated violations.

The measure passed out of the House last week and will now be considered by the Senate. 

More abortion restrictions

Republican lawmakers have advanced two major anti-abortion bills this legislative session. House Bill 3, the so-called “omnibus” abortion measure, would make it harder for minors to get the procedure, place restrictions on abortion medication and require fetal remains to be buried or cremated. The measure has passed the House and awaits consideration in the Senate.

Senate Bill 321 would ban abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, mirroring the Mississippi law currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. Supporters of the measure say it would make it easier for Kentucky to further restrict the procedure depending on the high court’s ruling. The bill has passed out of the Senate and still hasn’t been taken up in the House yet.

This story has been updated. Ryan Van Velzer contributed.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.