The clock is ticking down to the start of the 2024 General Assembly session, with lawmakers concluding their interim committee work and party caucuses meeting to set their priorities for next year.
Ahead of the January 2 start date for the session, four first-year lawmakers discussed the issues they hope the legislature will tackle in the coming session. Topping the list is a new state spending plan. Unlike many years past, House and Senate members will have a surplus and a robust Rainy Day Fund to work with during their budget negotiations. But Rep. Stephanie Dietz (R-Edgewood) says just because that money is available doesn’t mean legislators should spend it.
“It’s the first time we’ve had this type of a surplus, so I think something that we need to be conscious about is how do we spend it and what do we spend it for,” says Dietz. “It’s for emergencies and opportunities.”
Dietz says House Republicans haven’t discussed any spending cuts yet, but she says their budget priorities include economic development, child care, and workforce issues. Sen. Amanda Mays Bledsoe (R-Lexington) says Senate Republicans share those priorities but she adds that conservatives are eager to control spending so the state can meet the fiscal targets that will allow another drop in the income tax rate.
“If the General Assembly’s goal is to continue to reduce the income tax, then you have to be mindful of expenses today and those expenses tomorrow and the next year,” says Bledsoe. “That’s the goal... and the question is can we get there, and that’s going to take both chambers working together.”
But Democrats argue that continuing the GOP tax cut plan, which seeks to eventually lower the state rate to zero, is unwise when there are so many critical needs facing the commonwealth.
“We have an opportunity with $3.7 billion in the Rainy Day Fund right now to invest in the people of the commonwealth,” says Rep. Chad Aull (D-Lexington). “If you would ask our families, I think a lot of them would say it’s raining right now.”
Aull contends the state should invest in pay raises for teachers, school bus drivers, criminal justice personnel, and other state employees as well as fund universal pre-kindergarten. Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong (D-Louisville) says early childhood education is critical to addressing a range of social and workforce issues for the commonwealth. She says most states try to hold 15 percent of their budgets in an emergency reserve, but Kentucky is now approaching 35 percent.
“Our concern is how we put the money that we have to work for the people of Kentucky because it’s not solving any problems sitting in a Rainy Day Fund,” says Armstrong. “What we choose to put into our budget says something about who we are and who care about and the problems that we focus on.”
Beyond basic SEEK funding for public schools, Armstrong says lawmakers should increase bus driver pay. She says too many drivers leave public school routes for commercial driving jobs that can pay them twice as much. Aull says the state should also return to fully funding school transportation costs, which legislators are required to do by law but which has not actually happened in years. On the Republican side, Bledsoe says her caucus has discussed funding for school resource officers and mental health counselors.
The end of federal COVID relief funding for child care centers could put many of those businesses in dire financial straits. Armstrong says 20 percent of child care centers in Kentucky could close while 70 percent would have to raise their tuitions. She says support for those centers is a critical issue for working parents who rely on affordable child care services.
The state previously allocated $15 million in matching funds for businesses to help their employees with child care costs. But Bledsoe says companies have been slow to pursue that partnership. She contends lawmakers should consider how child care and universal pre-K could work together. She says that doesn’t have to depend on state funding. She points to how city and county officials in Danville along with the local chamber of commerce collaborated to purchase a vacant building and convert it into an early education center for the community.
Lawmakers may also consider a cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees, which they have not received in a decade. Aull says Kentucky could adopt a plan like one instituted in Texas that provides retired public employees with an additional paycheck each year. Bledsoe says another option would be a one-time bonus to retirees that would provide them with relief against inflation without creating recurring costs for the state.
Gun Safety and Abortion Ban Exceptions
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill) is working on gun safety legislation known as crisis aversion and rights retention or CARR. It would create a judicial process for temporarily removing firearms from the possession of someone deemed to be an imminent danger to themselves or others.
Similar legislation with bipartisan support has been proposed in Frankfort before but failed over concerns about due-process rights.
“I think Sen. Westerfield has some ideas on how we might be able to do that in a better way to make sure that due process is followed,” says Bledsoe. “If they can find that, there will be more support for it.”
Aull says CARR would be a great first step that should be accompanied with other measures like implementing universal background checks and funding a state gun-violence prevention office.
A group of Senate Republicans has proposed an 18-point plan to curb violent crime that they plan to introduce in the 2024 session. The Safer Kentucky Act includes provisions for life sentences without parole for three-time violent felony offenders, murder charges for drug dealers who sell fentanyl that leads to a lethal overdose, greater rights for shopkeepers to protect their businesses, and felony charges for carjackings. A provision on wiretapping has been removed from the legislation, according to Dietz, but she says it could return as a stand-alone bill.
Armstrong says the Safer Kentucky Act simply recycles old ideas that do not work. She fears such legislation could even lead to more violence in the commonwealth. She says efforts to tackle violent crime must be driven by research.
“When you look at the data about what promotes safety in a community... the number one thing is sense of community,” says Armstrong. “Whenever people live in a community where they know their neighbors, where it is a vibrant, walkable, connected place, you see crime go down.”
As the abortion debate continues, Republican legislative leaders have signaled they are open to discussing exceptions to the state’s ban on the procedure for victims of rape and incest.
Armstrong and Aull say Kentuckians have spoken on the issue by rejecting an amendment to the state constitution that would have affirmed no right to an abortion. Democrats also argue that Gov. Andy Beshear’s victory in this year’s gubernatorial campaign, in which exceptions to the abortion ban were a prominent point of debate, also show the public’s desire for some exemptions.
“It’s the right thing to do, and so the majority party has got to figure out if they have the courage to do the will of the voters in Kentucky,” says Aull.
Bledsoe says it’s not a matter of courage for Republicans but rather finding find a policy position that works for Kentuckians as well as the personal convictions of lawmakers. Dietz says she wants to hear from her northern Kentucky constituents on the issue, but she contends that Republican support for the current ban doesn’t mean the GOP is uncaring about the plight of abused women.
“I don’t want to retraumatize a rape victim or an incest victim,” says Dietz, “but there’s also another victim and that’s the unborn child, and I think we have to weigh that.”
A recent report from the League of Women Voters of Kentucky says state lawmakers are using legislative maneuvering to fast-track bills to passage with insufficient time for review and input by legislators and the general public. The report says less than 5 percent of bills were fast-tracked 25 years ago. By 2020, nearly a quarter of bills passed by the Senate and almost a third of legislation approved by the House was fast-tracked, according to the League.
Bledsoe acknowledges that bills can move quickly through the chambers, but she attributes that to the volume of work that legislators have to complete during their few weeks of work. She also contends that most issues receive extensive discussion in interim committee meetings that the public can follow. But she also thinks there are options for providing greater transparency around bills, amendments, and committee substitutes.
“I think we can make some better compromises to provide some stuff online,” says Bledsoe. “It will be easier and faster so you’re not feeling like there’s something being said that you can’t find quickly.”
Aull agrees that proposed legislation often does wind through interim committees, but he argues that during General Assembly sessions, final bills can still speed to passage before the public can fully digest them. He says the legislature should always adhere to its own rules, which call for passage of bills in no less than three days.
“We need to slow down and let the public have an actual meaningful opportunity to provide us feedback on these critical pieces of legislation that affects people’s lives,” says Aull.
Lawmakers might have more time to deliberate bills if Kentucky moved to a full-time legislature. That idea has been previously discussed in Frankfort, with differences of opinion. Dietz says continuous sessions could allow for a more measured legislative process, but she says lawmakers might also simply generate more bills to fill up their extra time.
Aull says the responsibilities of a full-time legislature might preclude some people from running for office. He says the General Assembly should comprise people devoted to public service, not just those who can afford to serve in Frankfort.