New Year’s celebrations will barely be finished when lawmakers convene for the 2024 General Assembly on January 2. Once again, the session will play out in a divided government of Republican super-majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, and a Democratic governor.
Relations between the legislative and executive branches are likely to remain frosty despite Gov. Andy Beshear’s five-point reelection victory earlier this month. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) recently said he sees no reason for lawmakers to work with the governor.
Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) says good public policy depends on communication and cooperation among the branches of government, yet she says she expects “business as usual” between legislators and Beshear.
“I look forward to the administration engaging with us,” says Adams. “Do I think that they will? I’m not sure but I hope they will.”
Even Sen. Robin Webb, a Grayson Democrat, acknowledges that other governors have done a better job working with the legislature than Beshear. She says a good rapport between the branches of government shouldn’t be partisan.
“Most people in Kentucky... want us to work together the best we can,” says Webb.
State Budget and Education Spending
Even though social and cultural issues dominated much of the 2023 General Assembly, House Majority Caucus Chair Suzanne Miles says the 2024 session will concentrate on fiscal matters.
“Our focus right now is on the budget,” says the Owensboro Republican. “I look at that as our number one responsibility.”
That could include overhauling SEEK, the formula that allocates per-pupil funding to Kentucky public schools. That calculation was created by the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act to address funding disparities among the state’s wealthier and poorer school districts. But recent reports indicate those financial inequities have arisen again.
“The (Kentucky) Supreme Court’s eventually going to make us change it if we don’t take proactive action because of the disparity at present,” says Webb.
Adams says a one-size-fits-all solution may not work in a state with such diverse school districts. She admits the SEEK formula may be outdated but she cautions that changing it would be “quite a hurdle to climb.”
“When you get into those conversations, you have to be really careful because there’s going to be winners and losers when you adjust anything,” says Adams.
She adds that lawmakers must continue to fund public schools at levels that enable students to thrive and adequately compensate teachers.
Governor Beshear has called for an 11 percent pay raise for all public school teachers, but Republicans prefer letting individual school districts set their own pay rates. Miles says school officials appreciate that kind of flexibility rather than having an across-the-board increase mandated by Frankfort.
Even though SEEK dollars have increased over the years, lawmakers have reduced other aspects of education funding with cuts to services like professional development and student transportation. Rep. Lindsey Burke, a freshman Democrat from Lexington, says the General Assembly hasn’t fully funded school busing costs, as is required by law, for 20 years, which she says has resulted in problems for students and parents.
“If we would step up and pay our part, we wouldn’t have so many kids coming home late,” says Burke. “So the General Assembly really needs to step up their game and do less talk and more action in this budget cycle.”
Other budget priorities for Adams include raising Medicaid reimbursement rates, some of which she says haven’t been adjusted in more than two decades. She also hopes allocations for mental health services will increase as well as funding for childcare.
Charter Schools Versus Public Education
After the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down a Republican plan to give state tax credits to donors who contribute to private school scholarship funds, GOP leaders have floated the idea of a constitutional amendment that would specifically allow tax dollars to flow to charter schools and other alternative education options.
Legislation to amend the state constitution must gain the approval of two-thirds of the House and Senate, which could be difficult to attain given that the tax credit plan had trouble winning a simple majority.
Adams says school choice already exists in Jefferson County and other districts where there are public, private, and religious-affiliated schools. She says many other public schools around the state are excellent and shouldn’t be undercut.
“I don’t think that we should take any money away from public education in this vein of having educational choice,” says Adams. “I don’t think that’s anyone’s objective.”
Burke says she opposes such a constitutional amendment. She contends that states which have implemented voucher programs similar to what’s been discussed here end up awarding most of those vouchers to students who are already in an alternative school.
“I want everyone to succeed, not just the people who already have a leg up,” says Burke. “So we need to make sure that we don’t waste the very precious tax dollars that we do have on something that’s not going to help Kentucky students.”
In addition to the issue of public dollars going to private education, Webb says she’s worried about the management of charter schools under the Republican-backed legislation.
“I’ve got legitimate concerns about losing oversight and accountability,” says Webb. “There’s just many layers of that policy that you need to be concerned about.”
Miles praises the public schools in Owensboro, including an innovation academy for middle and high school students from Daviess and surrounding counties that focuses on the sciences, technology, and entrepreneurship.
“They really fought hard… to do what they did and I would hope that at some point in time our Department of Education would make it a little bit easier to give every child an opportunity,” says Miles. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
Tensions linger among lawmakers over measures from previous sessions dealing with reproductive rights, human sexuality, and LGBTQ issues. Burke says she wants all children to feel welcome in schools and all employees to be welcomed in their workplaces, but she fears that may not be the case after passage of Senate Bill 150, which included provisions impacting transgender youth. She wants lawmakers to consider new legislation to address that.
“We ought to be looking at things like statewide fairness to show the world that we are not backward and bigoted,” says Burke.
Miles says SB 150 was not meant to make anyone feel targeted or marginalized. She contends it was simply meant to help parents know what’s happening in their children’s schools. Miles also says the media focuses too much on controversial bills and too little on important, bipartisan legislation that can benefit the commonwealth.
“It’s just unfortunate that we’ve got so many great things that take place where we all get along and we all agree on things,” says Miles, “It seems like the media doesn’t pay attention to that, and it’s just kind of disheartening sometimes.”
Another hot-button topic that could arise in the 2024 session is whether lawmakers will enact exemptions to the state’s ban on abortion to cover victims of rape or incest. Abortion exemptions were a key topic in the gubernatorial race, and House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) and Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) have signaled that they are open to discussing such legislation.
Miles says there is room for that conversation in the House, but she thinks it won’t be a significant focus of the legislative session. Adams says Senate Republicans have very diverse opinions on the issue, which she says will likely generate robust debate during their upcoming caucus retreat.
Burke, who says she lost an unborn child last year, says Kentuckians deserve a full rollback of the state’s abortion ban, but adds she would settle for the exemptions. Webb says she also faced a difficult pregnancy in her life and believes lawmakers should have no role in what should be a private decision among women, their families, their doctors, and God.
A different approach to the abortion debate could come from Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill), who plans to file a bill that would offer a range of supports to pregnant women, including free college tuition, housing assistance, and mental health services. Burke says the proposed bill is “phenomenal” and deserves bipartisan support.
“If we want women to make informed decisions about how to live their lives and for them to succeed and raise families, then that’s exactly the type of legislation we need,” says Burke.