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Debating Legislative Priorities in the 2021 General Assembly

Renee Shaw talks with guests about the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly. Guests include Sen. Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown); Sen. Minority Caucus Chair Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington); House Majority Whip Rep. Chad McCoy (R-Bardstown); and House Minority Caucus Chair Rep. Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort).
Season 28 Episode 7 Length 56:35 Premiere: 03/08/21


Kentucky Tonight

KET’s Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, brings together an expert panel for in-depth analysis on major issues facing the Commonwealth.

This weekly program features comprehensive discussions with lawmakers, stakeholders and policy leaders that are moderated by award-winning journalist Renee Shaw. Often aired live, viewers are encouraged to participate by submitting questions real-time via email, Twitter or KET’s online form.
For nearly three decades, Kentucky Tonight has been a source for complete and balanced coverage of the most urgent and important public affairs developments in the state of Kentucky.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to or use the contact form. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

After broadcast, Kentucky Tonight programs are available on and via podcast (iTunes or Android). Files are normally accessible within 24 hours after the television broadcast.

Kentucky Tonight was awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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Renee Shaw is Moderator and Director of Public Affairs for Kentucky Educational Television, currently serving as host of KET’s Kentucky Tonight, Connections, election coverage, Legislative Update and KET Forums.

Since joining KET in 1997, Shaw has produced numerous KET public affairs series and specials, including KET’s nationally recognized legislative coverage. Under her leadership, KET has expanded its portfolio of public affairs content to include Kentucky Supreme Court coverage, town hall-style forums, and multi-platform program initiatives around issues such as opioid addiction and youth mental health.  

As an award-winning journalist, Shaw has earned top awards from the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, earning two regional Emmy awards, and an award from the Kentucky Associated Press for political coverage of the state legislature. She was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2017. She has been honored by the AKA Beta Gamma Omega Chapter with a Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Award; earned the state media award from the Kentucky Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 2019; named a Charles W. Anderson Laureate by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet in 2019 honoring her significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues; earned the Anthony Lewis Media Award from the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy for her work on criminal justice reform in 2014; and, in 2015, received the Green Dot Award for her coverage of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.  

In 2018, KET earned a national media award from Mental Health America for its multi-dimensional content on the opioid epidemic shepherded by Shaw. That same year, she co-produced and moderated a six-part series on youth mental health that was awarded first place in educational content by NETA, the National Educational Telecommunications Association. In 2019, Shaw was recognized by The Kentucky Gazette as one of the 50 most notable women in Kentucky politics and government. In addition, Renee was awarded the Charles W. Anderson Laureate Award by the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet which recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions in addressing socio-economic issues.

Host Renee Shaw smiling in a green dress with a KET set behind her.

Lawmakers Discuss Crafting a State Budget and Other Bills

With just six working days left in the 2021 General Assembly session, it’s crunch time for state lawmakers who still need to pass budget and revenue bills as well as measures on education, infrastructure, and other issues.

The Budget Conference Committee is meeting this week to finalize a rare, one-year spending plan for the commonwealth. Given the fiscal uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators last year opted to pass a one-year budget instead of the usual two-year spending plan.

Now with new coronavirus cases on the decline, schools and businesses reopening, more Americans getting vaccinated, and new federal stimulus dollars on the way, the economic outlook is improving. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear says lawmakers should seize this opportunity to invest in Kentucky’s future. But Republican legislative leaders aren’t ready cut loose the purse strings yet.

“He wants to spend one-time taxpayer dollars to get out of this pandemic,” says Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown). “We want to be conservative with taxpayer dollars and we want to get the economy opened back up.”

Thayer says the good news is that the national economy did not collapse so much last year that Kentucky lawmakers weren’t forced to make budget cuts this year. But even with a new round of stimulus dollars, which could bring an estimated $2.6 billion to the commonwealth, Thayer contends there is still too much uncertainty about the recovery to justify new spending. He says the state can’t continue to depend on federal relief to prop up Kentucky’s economy.

Different Approaches to Economic Recovery

Republicans argue the best way to stimulate Kentucky’s economy is to pursue policies that let businesses fully reopen and encourage them to rehire workers. For example, the General Assembly is considering a measure that would give small businesses a tax deduction for Paycheck Protection Program loan expenses. Thayer says lawmakers should also put as much as $650 million into the state’s Budget Reserve Trust Fund, which already has a balance of about $500 million.

Instead of pouring more money into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, Democrats say the wiser approach is to jump-start the economy by boosting state spending.

“We ought to be prepared by sometime this year to break out of the gate real fast,” says Senate Minority Caucus Chair Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington). “We’ve got to do that by investing.”

Thomas says he supports proposals offered by Gov. Beshear to invest $220 million in relief for small businesses, and $50 million to complete the KentuckyWired broadband network.

“You can’t save your way to prosperity. That is not how you get ahead,” says Thomas. “I don’t think we should look at just doing a bare-bones budget. I think we would be cheating the state if we did that.”

House Minority Caucus Chair Derrick Graham of Frankfort calls for investment in all levels of education, from early childhood to college, which he argues is critical to economic success. He and Thomas also support pay raises for teachers, school staff, and all public-sector employees.

“I think the time is now for us, because of this pandemic, to invest in the human capital of this commonwealth because it is needed and the people are wanting it,” says Graham.

Many Republicans agree that broadband internet access must be expanded. House Majority Whip Chad McCoy of Bardstown says the pandemic has proven how critical universal high-speed service is to education, health care, and business. A bill that cleared the state House of Representatives with bipartisan support would allocate $250 million to complete the KentuckyWired network. McCoy says that money would be targeted to getting service to those homes, urban and rural, that have no internet service.

House Bill 320 is now before the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Thayer says he thinks lawmakers will devote some new money to broadband expansion, but he thinks it will be closer to $100 million.

As for education spending, Thayer says he expects no cuts or increases for colleges and universities, but he does hint that funding for charter schools could emerge in the waning days of the session. On pay raises, Thayer says now is not the time to boost public sector salaries with so many people still unemployed and lingering economic uncertainty.

Other Outstanding Issues

Along with little new spending, Thayer says he doesn’t foresee any tax increases to generate additional revenues for the state. He also says now is not the time for a gasoline tax hike, but he says lawmakers may consider increases to some vehicle-related fees and taxes, as well as a new annual fee for electric cars.

McCoy contends something must be done because he says the Road Fund is netting $200 million less in revenues than it did just a few years ago.

“We are quickly getting to where gas is not going to be the appropriate way to pay for our infrastructure,” says McCoy “Because of where we’re situated, we have so many vehicles running through our state that are causing an impact on our roads, but we’re not collecting enough to even repave the roads we’ve got.”

If lawmakers don’t act now to address infrastructure funding, Thomas says Kentucky roads will be in terrible shape by the end of the decade. He says the state should levy fees on electric vehicles and implement a small tax increase on commercial trucking.

As for other potential revenue sources, Thayer says medical marijuana does not have the votes to pass the Senate. Gov. Beshear proposed taxing production and distribution of medicinal cannabis, an idea that lawmakers of both parties oppose. Thayer adds a proposal to allow sports wagering will also be tabled this year. But he says legislators could revive a refundable tax credit to lure film and television productions to the state.

Republican leaders also want to address the unemployment insurance crisis. In addition to thousands of unresolved claims that have accumulated over the past year, a recent audit of the state’s unemployment insurance office found it received 400,000 emails that went unread. Thayer says lawmakers want to give Beshear tools to fix the system.

“Gov. Beshear has bungled it,” says Thayer. “I just don’t think he understood when he shut down the economy what was coming, and our system wasn’t ready for it.”

While Republicans blame Beshear for the unemployment mess, Democrats fault the system the governor inherited from the Matt Bevin Administration, including outdated computer technology and shuttered unemployment offices.

“People are hurting, people are losing their homes, they’re losing their cars, they’re behind in utilities,” says Graham. “We need to work together to try to find mechanisms by which we can help the people across this commonwealth.”

McCoy says he’s concerned about how to pay back the $700 million dollars the state borrowed from the federal unemployment trust fund to cover benefits for out-of-work Kentuckians. He also wants to protect employers from a spike in unemployment tax rates. A measure to reopen unemployment offices passed the House with bipartisan support and awaits Senate action.

In education, McCoy is the sponsor of bills that he says will give parents more options for their children. He wants schools to accept non-resident students and allow state funding to follow those students to their new schools. He also proposes to create a tax credit for people who donate to non-profit organizations that provide grants and scholarships to poor families who want to send their children to a different public school.

“This is about giving people who don’t have the means the ability to educate their children,” says the Republican.

McCoy’s original proposal included the option of sending a child to a private school, but in response to feedback he’s removed that provision. Graham, who is a retired history teacher, says he’s still uncomfortable with the proposals because he fears they could further undermine struggling schools and lead to overcrowding in neighboring districts.

“I believe it’s a threat to public education, even though private schools have been taken out,” says Graham.

The full legislature returns to Frankfort on Thursday. Thayer predicts lawmakers will complete work on the state budget and other Republican priorities by next Tuesday, which will give them time to override any gubernatorial vetoes before the session ends on March 30.

“Our approach is going to win the day because we’ve got the votes to do it,” says Thayer. “We have supermajorities in the House and the Senate. We have ability to override the governor, which we will do.”

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Season 28 Episodes

City and County Issues

S28 E38 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 12/13/21

Compensating College Athletes: Name, Image and Likeness

S28 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/22/21

Trends in State and National Politics

S28 E35 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 11/15/21

Abortion Rights and Restrictions

S28 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/08/21

Kentucky's Social Services System

S28 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/01/21

School Choice in the Commonwealth

S28 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/25/21

Historical Horse Racing: A Growing Pastime in Kentucky

S28 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/11/21

New Developments and the Unknowns of COVID-19

S28 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/04/21

COVID and the Classroom

S28 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/27/21

Remembering 9/11, 20 Years Later

S28 E28 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/13/21

Kentucky's Response to COVID-19

S28 E27 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 08/30/21

Discussing the Surge of COVID-19 Cases in Kentucky

S28 E26 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 08/23/21

Fancy Farm Preview and State Politics

S28 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/02/21

Back-To-School Issues in Kentucky

S28 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/26/21

Childcare Challenges

S28 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/19/21

The Urban-Rural Divide in Kentucky

S28 E22 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 07/12/21

Work Shifts: Kentucky's Labor Shortage and Hiring Challenges

S28 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/28/21

Public Infrastructure: What Kentucky Needs

S28 E19 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/21/21

Debating Critical Race Theory

S28 E18 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 06/14/21

Kentucky's Rebound From COVID-19

S28 E17 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/07/21

Jobs and the Economy

S28 E16 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/17/21

The Future of Policing in America

S28 E15 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 05/10/21

President Biden's First 100 Days

S28 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/03/21

Mass Shootings and Gun Laws

S28 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/26/21

Voting Rights and Election Laws

S28 E12 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/20/21

The 2021 General Assembly: Debating Major Legislation

S28 E11 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 04/12/21

Wrapping Up the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E10 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 03/29/21

School Choice in Kentucky

S28 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/22/21

No-Knock Warrants

S28 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 03/15/21

Debating Legislative Priorities in the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E7 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 03/08/21

Proposed Legislation to Modify Kentucky Teachers' Pensions

S28 E6 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/22/21

Debating Historical Horse Racing Legislation

S28 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/08/21

New Lawmakers in the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly

S28 E4 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 02/01/21

A Nation Divided

S28 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/21

Recapping the Start of the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E2 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 01/11/21

Previewing the 2021 General Assembly

S28 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/21

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