Sometimes breaking news necessitates a change of plans for a previously scheduled edition of Kentucky Tonight. Such was the case on April 10, when a mass shooting in downtown Louisville killed five people and wounded nine people. A planned conversation about the 2023 General Assembly session with representatives of four organizations that lobby lawmakers expanded to include discussion about how to address the prevalence of gun violence in America today.
“When situations like this happen... it really just, from my perspective, serves as a reminder of the brokenness of our society in so many ways,” says David Walls, executive director of The Family Foundation. “I’m not as convinced that there’s a policy position on a particular-related gun law that’s really going to solve this problem. I think it’s much deeper than that.”
Walls contends the violence is as much a spiritual problem as a regulatory one. He says it points to brokenness in homes and families that can only be resolved through a revival in churches and communities.
The causes do extend beyond the proliferation of guns in the United States, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks. He says that doesn’t preclude public policies that have broad support such as regulating high-capacity magazines for guns, prohibiting the sale of firearms to youth under the age of 21, and providing more mental health supports to children who may be at risk of perpetrating gun violence later in life. But Brooks adds that lawmakers aren’t the only ones who should address the root problem.
“As parents and grandparents, as faith communities, as schools, as businesses, we also have a duty and that is to tackle a culture of violence,” says Brooks.
Kentucky is one of more than two dozen states that received an F rating in the annual review of gun laws compiled by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. (The organization is named for former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was the victim of a mass shooting in 2011.) Instead of working to strengthen gun controls, Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, says lawmakers in Frankfort have made access to guns easier in the commonwealth. He also points to a law passed by the Republican supermajorities in the 2023 General Assembly that prohibits local and state authorities from enforcing any federal firearms bans.
“No one is safe and no one will be safe until we begin to change those laws,” says Bailey. “We have to change the way that we’re governing if we want to solve this problem.”
In March, Rep. Savannah Maddox proposed legislation to allow anyone over the age of 21 to carry a gun on public college or university campuses. House Bill 542 passed out of committee but failed to gain traction in the full House of Representatives. Officials at the schools opposed the legislation as did the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Kate Shanks, the organization’s senior vice president of public affairs, says the Chamber views the bill and similar legislation from the perspective of business owners.
“This is a workplace safety issue,” says Shanks. “And it is the right of the employer to decide how to manage or to prohibit guns on their property that they oversee.”
Legislative Victories and Worrisome Trends
Reviewing what the legislature did pass during the 2023 session, Shanks praises for their efforts to further cut the state income tax, phase out the tax on bourbon barrels, and the adoption of a so-called pass-through entity tax to help small business owners lower their federal income tax liability.
“The General Assembly delivered again for the job creators of our state,” says Shanks, “looking at about a $1.5B savings for businesses because of the work they did.”
The Chamber also supported passage of legislation to legalize sports wagering and to ban slot-like betting machines. These “gray games” have proliferated in convenience stores, bars, truck stops, and other venues although many questioned whether they were actually legal under existing state laws.
“We just have concerns about this industry coming into the state,” Shanks says. “It wasn’t regulated, it wasn’t authorized, it wasn’t taxed.”
While the business community and taxpayers may applaud the tax cuts, Bailey says he worries what impacts those changes will have on the state’s finances. Despite being a non-budget year for lawmakers, he says they managed to pass some $5 billion in giveaways that he argues will mostly benefit wealthy Kentuckians..
“They did the easy part now – just give away the tax cuts. The hard decision is how do you pay for those, and we know that we’re going to have to,” says Bailey. “As these (cuts) continue to be implemented over time, we’re going to have to have a budget reckoning.”
On the positive side, Bailey says lawmakers are to be commended for finally legalizing medical cannabis and decriminalizing fentanyl test strips. Those paper strips can indicate whether an illicit narcotic is laced with the deadly opioid fentanyl, which would help a drug user avoid a potentially fatal overdose.
Walls says The Family Foundation counts Senate Bill 150 as its biggest legislative victory. That measure bans gender-affirming health care for minors, tightens school policies on transgender youth, and gives parents more say about what their children learn about human sexuality in school.
“The truth is SB 150 will help save the lives of children,” says Walls. “It will do that by stopping these harmful (gender-affirming) surgeries, and in the education context, it will stop our schools from promoting these harmful ideologies that are teaching our children a lie – a lie that says that they can be something opposite of their biological sex.”
SB 150 proved to be one of the most controversial bills of the session, drawing large protests from opponents as it moved through the legislature. Bailey says the bill is “mean spirited” and will marginalize an already vulnerable population of young Kentuckians.
Brooks agrees, saying he fears SB 150 will hurt children already at great risk of suicide. As he reviews the 2023 General Assembly, Brooks says he is pleased by bills to improve child welfare and the state’s juvenile justice system. At the same time, though, he says he sees several troubling trends emerging in Frankfort. He points to how state lawmakers are embracing national legislative agendas on issues rather than devising their own solutions to Kentucky problems. He also points to the inconsistent and erratic application of certain principals like parental rights and local control across a variety of bills. And he fears legislative leadership is no longer a moderating voice in the House and Senate, but instead ceding control to their far-right members.
“Those three themes greatly disturb me as we look ahead because I think that suggests storm clouds gathering for Kentucky laws,” says Brooks.
School Choice Debate Likely to Resume Next Year
Looking to the 2024 General Assembly session, the panelists expect school choice to be a prominent agenda item, including a potential constitutional amendment to allow public funding to go to charter schools. Brooks says he’s seen school choice options in other states that have proven to be very successful, while others have been disastrous. He says “the devil is in the details” of what Kentucky’s policies would actually be, with questions about school accountability, how the funding is handled, and whether charters would be open and inclusive to all kinds of students.
“To me school choice is scary as a phrase because I don’t think it means anything without details,” says Brooks.
Walls says The Family Foundation supports school choice. He contends traditional schools are failing students, so he says it only makes sense to give parents more choices for how to educate their children. He also argues that the presence of charter schools would improve the quality of public education in the commonwealth.
“Anytime you add a little bit of accountability and competition, that encourages the entire system to do better,” says Walls.
Shanks says the issue of charter school funding will take more work and discussion to arrive at a proper solution. She says the Chamber doesn’t want lawmakers to starve public education, but at the same time she says the state needs a tax system that will support growth in the entire economy.
Bailey says the Kentucky Supreme Court has already closed the door on using tax dollars for private schools. Plus, he contends it makes no sense for Frankfort to fund charter schools when the public school system is already woefully underfunded.