Heading into the 2023 General Assembly, Republican leaders promised a deliberative pace to the 30-day session and a focus on adjustments to previously enacted legislation.
In the end though, the session saw a last-minute rush of bills pushed to final passage as well as many new statements of policy, some bipartisan in nature and others passed by the Republican supermajorities in both chambers.
“The amount of work that took place this session was pretty remarkable,” says Rep. Suzanne Miles (R-Owensboro), who is House Majority Caucus Chair.
After years of attempts, the legislature finally approved medical marijuana legislation, sports wagering, and a phase-out of the tax on bourbon barrels in votes that revealed splits among the caucuses. Broad collaboration among Republicans and Democrats also moved crucial juvenile justice reforms, steps to address the teacher shortage, and a public health measure on fentanyl test strips.
But even with those successes and a further reduction to the personal income tax, this legislative session will likely be remembered for contentious efforts to ban gender-affirming health care for minors and tighten school policies on transgender youth.
“Even though a majority of the [newspaper] ink was on those bills, we did a whole lot of other really wonderful things to move the commonwealth forward,” says Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Republican from Louisville. “We took care of so many issues that had been lingering for so many years.”
The Fight Over Transgender Rights
Senate Bill 150 on trans youth gained final passage on the last day before the veto period after legislative maneuvering to finesse its contents, intense debate by lawmakers, and Capitol rallies for and against the measure.
“In my three years in office, the only times I’ve really seen the Capitol absolutely packed with people is when we’re actively trying to take away their rights,” says Rep. Rachel Roberts, who is House Minority Whip.
The Newport Democrat decries both the legislation and the rapid, last-minute fashion in which it was passed by the Republican supermajorities. She describes SB 150 as a “shiny penny” bill that drew focus away from other important issues like education and affordable housing that impact the lives of everyday Kentuckians.
“I do think that government works best when it’s patient and when there’s healthy friction, and I worry there isn’t healthy friction with a supermajority in both chambers right now,” says Roberts. “Instead, there is just uber-polarization and the ability for some of the most extreme ideas to get rushed through.”
Miles says Republican leadership did not bend or break any legislative rules during the session. She adds that the issues regarding trans youth have been under discussion since the interim period last summer.
With more than two decades of service in Frankfort, Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) says she’s been on the giving and receiving ends of all kinds of legislative “shenanigans.” Regardless of the specific bills in play, she says the majority party gets to make and bend the rules, especially in the waning days of a session.
“We all have procedural issues in the 11th hour,” says Webb. “I don’t think that’s going to change regardless of who’s in the majority.”
SB 150 was sponsored by Campbellsville Sen. Max Wise, who is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor running with Kelly Craft. That led some Democrats to argue the measure was simply a political stunt to rally GOP voters to the Craft-Wise campaign. Adams discounts that notion, saying the matter grew out of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns by parents about how schools operate and what their children are taught in the classroom. She says the legislation saw significant revisions as it moved from interim committees to final passage. For example, she says she pushed to maintain mental health services for youth experiencing gender dysphoria even while the rest of the bill prohibited the use gender-affirming medications and procedures for minors.
“The way that the bill started is not the way the bill ended up, and I think that’s an important distinction,” says Adams. “We’ll figure out during the interim if we went too far or not far enough.”
Lawmakers could be forced to revisit the issue since legal challenges to SB 150 are expected. Sen. Robin Webb (D-Grayson) says she thinks the legislation needs more work to get it to a “good product.”
“That bill has constitutional issues, and the constitution requires that we protect everybody’s parental rights and we protect all the children,” says Webb.
How Medical Marijuana Finally Reached the Governor’s Desk
A tightly constructed medical cannabis bill gained final passage after similar legislation passed the House in 2020 and 2022 only to stall in the Senate. While the previous attempts had started in the House, this year’s bill started in the Senate. Adams credits the influence of six new senators in the upper chamber and frequent discussions among Republicans in the Senate and House with finally breaking the logjam.
“We just kept tinkering around with [the bill], and then informed the caucus of where we are, where we thought we were going to tinker next,” says Adams. “So over the course of the session, we built some consensus with our members to the point where everybody felt really comfortable with the product.”
Miles says a large group of freshmen representatives also helped changed the dynamics of the debate on medicinal cannabis. Senate Bill 47 won’t actually take effect until 2025, which Miles says gives lawmakers additional time to address any concerns about the new law and to promulgate the needed regulations on growing, processing, and dispensing the marijuana to qualified patients.
“Some of the things that people may not have been happy with, we’ve got time to work on that,” says Miles. “I’m hopeful that we get there to a safe space where... the product is safe, the dispensing is safe.”
Roberts says she’s pleased Kentuckians will finally have access to medical marijuana even though she laments the current bill doesn’t go as far as she would like.
Passage of medical marijuana, sports wagering, a ban on so-called gray games, the trans youth bill, and other issues revealed splits within the Republican supermajorities. Miles says that’s a natural result of “growing pains” among the 80 GOP members in the House and 30 in the Senate. She says leadership constantly worked to engage all Republican members, let them have their say, and encourage them to collaborate on legislation.
But in the final hours of the session, House leaders removed six Republican representatives from their assigned committees. One of those members, Rep. Felicia Rabourn of Pendleton, told the Lexington Herald-Leader the move was in retaliation for their challenges to Republican leaders.
Miles, who is in House leadership, says it’s common to change committee membership heading into the interim period.
“I wouldn’t say it’s specifically retaliation as much as we have members that push back with us to say, ‘Something’s got to be done with some of the things that’s going on,’” says Miles. “So I would think most of the things that took place on the last day and some changes that took place was a direct result of our membership asking so.”
Looking Towards the Interim Period and the 2024 Session
These lawmakers say many other important bills passed during the session without fireworks or fanfare that will benefit Kentuckians. Adams points to her Senate Bill 94 that she says will improve access to health care in rural parts of the state by expanding capabilities of advanced practice registered nurses to prescribe medications. Roberts touts a measure she co-sponsored to create an urban search and rescue program, which she says will be important with the increasing number of severe weather events the state is experiencing.
Another new law will make it harder for the state’s electric utilities to retire coal-fired power plants. Webb says Senate Bill 4 is an important part of a larger discussion about reliability of electrical service in the state as well as electric grid security and energy diversification.
The legislature also came up short in several areas. Adams says since leadership opened the state budget in this non-budget year, they should’ve have considered funds for more affordable housing. Miles says she sought measures to address postpartum depression and to bolster the foster care system. She also says a proposal to allow weapons on college campuses, which failed to gain traction this year and faced opposition from higher education officials, could be the focus of an interim task force that includes representatives of the state’s colleges and universities. Roberts says she wanted exemptions to the state’s abortion ban that would at least allow the victims of rape or incest access to the procedure.
Looking ahead to the 60-day session in 2024, Adams says she will push to hold managed care organizations more responsible for the poor health of Kentuckians. Webb and Miles say they want lawmakers to explore additional recovery supports for flood victims in Appalachian communities and tornado victims in western Kentucky. Roberts says she hopes for measures to expand access to maternal health care and to make health care in general more affordable. She also the General Assembly must continue to address the shortage of fire fighters, police officers, and public school teachers. And she hopes for actions that temper recent legislation she says has been against women as well as gay and transgender Kentuckians.
“We have sent some pretty loud messages through the General Assembly the last few years that women are less valued in the state, that people who are LGBTQ are less valued in this state,” says Roberts. “I’m very hopeful that we will stop that now and start moving towards things that are more unifying and that help to grow our state and that help to entice people to live here and stay here.”