As state legislators prepare to convene in Frankfort for the 2023 General Assembly, Republican leaders say Kentuckians shouldn’t expect a frenzied rush of bills in the opening days of the session.
In 2017, with the GOP in control of both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, lawmakers acted in the first week (including a rare Saturday work day) to pass seven bills dealing with conservative priorities from right to work to abortion. In the years since, the Republican majorities have moved quickly on a range of other policy and budget issues.
“You’re going to see us take a much more traditional approach to a short session,” says House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect). “I’m sure that there will be something throughout the session that will cause calamity, and people will be setting their hair on fire... But I think that generally speaking you’re going to see a much more deliberate session.”
Under the current schedule, senators and representatives are set to convene at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 3 for four working days. Then they will return to Frankfort on Feb. 5 for the remainder of the 30-day legislative session. Leadership is still discussing whether that first week may extend into Saturday, according to Osborne. He says the opening days will include a vote to affirm a half-a-percent drop in the state’s income tax. A vote regarding construction of a long-term care facility for veterans in Bowling Green may also be necessary, he says.
Looking farther ahead, Osborne and Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) say the work will be focused on making needed tweaks to previously enacted bills.
“Since Republicans took over control of the House in 2017... we’ve passed not all but almost all of our major conservative Republican policies,” says Thayer. “There’s more work to do on charter schools, educational opportunity scholarships. There’ll be cleanup to do on the big tax cut.”
Democratic leaders applaud the prospect of a less hectic pace.
“Over the last four years we’ve passed on average about 190 laws each session,” says House Democratic Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson (D-Lexington). “So I think being a little bit more deliberate in nature is going to be good for us.”
Although the results of the November elections gave Republicans even larger supermajorities in the state legislature, Senate Minority Caucus Chair Reggie Thomas of Lexington says he thinks voters generally want policymakers to be less partisan. The Democrat points to how Kentucky voters rejected Republican-pushed amendments to the state constitution on abortion and on legislators calling themselves into session.
“What they really want are the two parties to work together,” says Thomas. “They’re tired of the extremism, they’re tired of all the bickering and fighting… They want a government that works and works together, and really works for them.”
Thomas and Stevenson say most of the legislation passed in Frankfort is bipartisan. As examples, they say Democrats and Republicans have worked together on issues like criminal justice reform, insulin costs, mental health issues, and disaster relief.
With the defeat of the proposed constitutional amendment on abortion rights, all eyes now turn to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which is set to rule on whether to reinstate a temporary injunction on the state’s current abortion bans.
In the meantime, Democrats say they still want to push for exceptions to the bans beyond protecting the life of the mother. Stevenson says her caucus has tried for five years to include exceptions for cases of rape and incest and other factors, which she says Republicans have rapidly overruled.
“As we go into the new year, we need to be sure that health care is accessible to women,” says Stevenson. “An exemptions bill is not the answer to that. I think doctors need to be able to treat women without legislators getting in the way.”
Osborne says House Republicans have had “robust” conversations about potential exceptions, but he says he won’t speculate on what actions they might pursue until the Supreme Court issues its ruling.
Even though the proposed amendment failed statewide, Thayer says many lawmakers represent districts that approved the referendum. He says a court decision or wording of the state constitution is unlikely to sway some members on adding exemptions to an abortion ban.
“We have a very conservative group who believe that life begins at conception,” says Thayer. “They don’t believe the baby should be punished for the hideous way in which it was conceived.”
Thomas says lawmakers can debate the details of what exceptions to include and when they would be enforced, but he says to have no exemptions beyond protecting the mother’s health is too extreme.
Proposals to allow the use of marijuana to alleviate certain medical conditions have enjoyed bipartisan support in Frankfort. Two bills on the issue have passed the House but then languished in the Senate without a vote.
Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville), who has championed medical marijuana legislation in the House, says any such proposal for the 2023 session should start in the upper chamber. Sen. Stephen West, a Paris Republican, is poised to sponsor a medicinal cannabis bill in the Senate in the new year.
Thomas says he supports medical uses for marijuana, and he agrees that the legislation should start in the Senate. Thayer, who staunchly opposes any legalization of cannabis, doubts that’s an effective strategy, saying he’s uncertain who in the Senate GOP caucus has the muscle to power a bill through the chamber. Even if that person emerges, Thayer says there still may not be enough votes in the Senate to approve medical marijuana legislation.
Three dozen states already allow some form of medical cannabis use. Last month Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order to allow possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana for medicinal use by individuals who purchase it in states where it is legal and who have a doctor’s statement for using it.
Republicans criticized the order as political move by a governor seeking reelection, while medical marijuana advocates hailed the action. Stevenson says her constituents in Lexington overwhelmingly support allowing medicinal use.
“Republicans and Democrats are telling me this is a huge issue,” says Stephenson. “It polls in my district around 88 percent.”
Osborne says this has not been an easy issue for House Republicans to approve, yet he says they were willing to bring it to a successful vote twice in recent years.
“I believe that it’s a real honor to be able to vote on things,” says Osborne. “If people continue to ignore the overwhelming will of the voters, not just on medical marijuana, on lots of issues, I think that people will seek relief some way and I hope that they don’t do that by moving out of the state.”
Another issue that has passed the House with bipartisan support only to stall in the Senate is sports betting. Osborne says he’s uncertain how the issue might fare in the 2023 session given that there are 25 new members entering the House in January.
Thayer and Thomas say they want to see sports betting in the commonwealth. They argue it’s a natural extension of parimutuel wagering and a logical choice for a state so devoted to its collegiate teams.
“Certainly there’s some harms that come with any kind of gaming. We ought to take that into account and try to provide relief and measures to address that where possible,” says Thomas. “But, yes, sports gaming should be approved in this state in 2023.”
But the two senators add that they oppose efforts to legalize so-called gray games. Kentucky has as many of 3,000 of these slot-like machines in 850 locations, primarily at convenience stores. Store operators share in the profits made by the games, and some proceeds are donated to local Fraternal Order of Police lodges.
Proponents argue the machines are games of skill, yet they operate in a legal gray area of current law that restricts gambling in the commonwealth to betting on horse races (both live and historic), charitable gaming, and the state lottery.
“If you’re operating gray machines in the back of your convenience store, you’re running an illegal casino,” says Thayer.
Thayer argues these gray machines aren’t registered, regularly tested, or taxed by the state like historical horse racing games are. He says the opinions of his fellow senators vary widely on whether to legalize the machines. Stevenson says the House is also divided, with some representatives seeing the gray machines as a threat to horse racing and to the Kentucky Lottery, while others view the games as vital sources of revenue for small, mom-and-pop businesses.
“I think the longer that they are in place, the harder it’s going to be to pull those back,” says Stevenson.
Some form of regulation for these machines is essential, according to Osborne. He says the tight regulatory authority the state maintains over parimutuel wagering, the lottery, and charity games has helped keep a “criminal element” out of Kentucky.
“We’ve got to get [gray games] in a regulatory structure, and that will either mean we outlaw them all together or that we figure out a way to regulate them and make sure that they’re operating responsibly,” Osborne says. “The one thing that is not an option is no action.”
Osborne and Thomas agree that debates about new forms of gaming will continue arise in the commonwealth until lawmakers take a broad, holistic look at gambling and its implications. But Osborne says that debate likely won’t happen next year or even within 10 years.
Local Tax Options
City and county officials in Kentucky continue to ask state lawmakers for new options to enable them to raise revenues beyond the limited means granted them in the state constitution (generally around property taxes and occupational taxes).
Proposals to allow municipalities to levy local sales taxes have floated around Frankfort for years, but would require amending the state constitution. Osborne says the House has passed such proposals in the past, based on the belief that local governments and residents should have the flexibility to decide the best mechanisms for generating local revenues.
“I do believe that there is a continued interest and need to have local government tax reform,” says Osborne. But he adds, “I think it is a very, very difficult message to deliver. It is so easy to hear that as ‘tax increase.’”
As for Senate Republicans, Thayer says they are “not there yet” on local taxation. He contends there are too many Democrats sitting on city councils that are eager to raise taxes. Thayer says he would want to protect residents with offsets to any new taxes so that their overall tax liabilities would not grow larger.
“I don’t want to be responsible for allowing city councils across the state to increase the tax burden on Kentuckians,” says Thayer.