Odd-year legislative sessions are usually rushed affairs, as lawmakers scramble to pass as many bills as possible in 30 working days.
The recently completed 2021 Kentucky General Assembly was especially productive, especially given the limited number days, COVID-19 health protocols, a week-long winter-weather delay, and the need to enact a one-year state budget.
“I’ve never seen a 30-day session with more volume and more intensity,” says Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer. The Georgetown Republican has served in Frankfort since 2003.
Late in the session, lawmakers got word that state would receive about $2.4 billion in relief assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress in March. Even as they await full guidance on how that money can be spent, Kentucky legislators allocated $1.3 billion of those funds to a series of projects, including last-mile broadband internet service, drinking and wastewater projects, and school facility construction.
“That’s going to be a great thing where we can free up some one-time money and really make significant investments in our infrastructure,” says House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy (R-Paducah).
Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey calls those investments a good start.
“Clean drinking water and internet access, that gets us to the end of the 20th century,” he says. “We’ve got to start really investing not just in this century but beyond.”
The Louisville Democrat says he hopes lawmakers will use some of the remaining ARPA funds to provide direct stimulus payments to low-income Kentuckians and to small businesses hurt by the pandemic. Thayer argues that such relief payouts are necessary only because of terrible decisions made by Gov. Andy Beshear during the pandemic.
“If the governor hadn’t shut down a number of businesses, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” says Thayer. “This governor has had a deleterious effect on business across this commonwealth with his heavy-handed COVID policies.”
Those actions could come back to haunt Beshear, if he decides to run for reelection in 2023, says Thayer. But House Minority Whip Angie Hatton (D-Whitesburg) says Beshear made the best decisions possible during a rapidly changing situation.
“In all the ways that are measurable, Kentucky actually did very well during the pandemic when we compare it to other states,” says Hatton. “We saved a lot more lives, and also our economy did not tank.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have bemoaned the poor performance of the state’s unemployment insurance system, which was swamped with a record number of benefit requests due to COVID closures. The governor has blamed the slow response to thousands of claims on unemployment office closures and staff reductions enacted by former Gov. Matt Bevin. McGarvey contends that hamstrung the Beshear Administration’s response to the unemployment crisis.
“That’s what happens when you make those cuts to government,” says McGarvey. “You can’t all of a sudden get it up and running the next day because you need it now.”
Thayer and Rudy say the cuts were made at a time when Kentucky had record high employment, and the money those closures saved went to pay down the state’s public pension debts. More than a year into the pandemic, Rudy contends Beshear still resists allowing lawmakers to help resolve the situation.
“I want to help the guy fix it, but he doesn’t want to call us and tell us what he needs other than, ‘Give us more time,’” says Rudy.
A Proposed Constitutional Amendment on Legislative Sessions
To make the legislative branch more responsive to emergencies, lawmakers passed a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would enable the Senate President and the Speaker of the House to call lawmakers back to Frankfort for 12 additional working days beyond the regular 30- and 60-day sessions. Voters will decide on that amendment in the 2022 general election.
Thayer says the change would give lawmakers greater flexibility and force a governor to work with the legislature in a crisis.
“What the pandemic did show is a flaw in our constitution that basically shuts out the people’s branch of government from governing during an emergency for nine months out of the year,” says Thayer. “I don’t think we would ever come back into special session unless there was an overriding reason to do so because I think if we did our constituents would revolt.”
Hatton describes the proposed amendment as “a terrible idea.” She fears lawmakers will use it as an excuse to get paid for 12 extra days of work, and to rush through bills without proper public input.
“It’s hard to believe that with no restrictions whatsoever on the reasons that we call ourselves back in that it won’t be misused,” says Hatton. “I’d say that there’s very little chance there’ll be a year that goes by that we don’t use it.”
Although he endorses a conversation about modernizing the legislative schedule, McGarvey says he’s concerned that this proposal will make it even harder for citizen-lawmakers to fulfill their elective duties and work their regular jobs. Rudy says legislators already spend significant time in Frankfort throughout the year attending interim committee meetings. He says this proposal would enable them to actually pass legislation while they are in town.
School Choice Bill Divides Lawmakers
One of the more contentious issues of the session was a measure designed to bring more school choice to the commonwealth. House Bill 563 would allow students to attend a public school outside of their home districts. It also creates a mechanism to provide scholarship funds to low-income students so they can attend a different school or get specialized training.
The bill gained final approval in the House by just one vote. After Gov. Beshear vetoed the measure, some Republicans feared they would not have the votes to override that veto. But the House ultimately cleared the veto with one vote to spare.
“This will help poor kids pay for tuition, books, supplies, and help them have the choice that families with means have in many parts of Kentucky,” says Thayer.
Students across the state can use the scholarship funds to offset costs to attend a different public school; students living in counties with a population of 90,000 or greater also have the option to use the money to go to a private school.
“It will never help the rural areas,” says Hatton. “All it does is divert $25 million that could be spent on public education.”
The legislation does create a $25 million tax credit for individuals who contribute to scholarship-granting organizations that will disburse the money to eligible families. Democrats contend that’s an unfair use of public tax dollars when teacher pay, per-pupil school funding, and textbook resources remain unchanged for public education.
“These are private schools that are getting public money and do not have the same requirements and obligations as the public schools to their students,” says McGarvey.
But Republicans argue they have provided record levels of funding for public education by making investments in the struggling teacher pension system and money for new school buildings. Rudy adds that HB 563 doesn’t provide state General Fund dollars directly to private schools. Rather, it offers a tax credit to individuals as an incentive to donate scholarship funds. That, he says, is a critical difference.
“The argument is, is it good tax policy or not?” says Rudy. “It is not about school choice.”
Examples of Bipartisanship
Despite the highly partisan debates over school choice, teacher pensions, abortion, and other issues, lawmakers passed a number of significant measures with votes from the Republican majority as well as many Democrats.
For example, legislators of both parties overwhelmingly approved House Bill 574, which expands voting opportunities across the commonwealth. Kentuckians will now have three days of early in-person voting, including one Saturday. Counties can open voting centers, where any eligible voter from that county can cast a ballot. A new online portal will make it easier for voters to request an absentee ballot.
“We were the only Republican-controlled state to actually expand [the] ability to register to vote and access to voting, says Hatton. “It was a direct result of our Republican secretary of state and our Democrat governor working very hard together, and then all of the legislature agreeing on what level of reform we were comfortable with.”
Some lawmakers hoped for two to three weeks of early in-person voting, but Thayer says he opposes such a lengthy voting period before Election Day. He contends too much can happen in the final days of a campaign that could change a voter’s mind about their preferred candidate. McGarvey says the state should continue to make it easier to vote by codifying all of the pandemic-related changes used during the 2020 general election, which included a lengthy early voting period and easier access to absentee balloting. He also calls for the restoration of voting rights for certain felons who have completed their sentences.
Thayer praises the work lawmakers did to pass Senate Bill 120, which he says is critical to the state’s Thoroughbred industry.
“The bill legalized once and for all historical horse racing as pari-mutuel wagering at Kentucky’s race tracks,” says Thayer. “It will allow Kentucky to continue our positive trajectory to offer the best daily horse racing purses in the country.”
Tracks have featured the slot-like electronic games based on previously run horse races for about a decade. But a Kentucky Supreme Court decision last fall said the games were illegal under the state’s constitution. With the legalization of historic horse racing, Thayer says Kentucky is poised to become the best year-round horse-racing circuit in the nation.
Lawmakers also gave broad bipartisan support to funding full-day kindergarten.
“It took all session to do it, but we did appropriate $140 million to put into early childhood education,” says McGarvey. “I hope that’s a building block where we can use that bipartisan success and now move towards... beginning to fund education before kindergarten.”
Until now, the state only paid for a half-day of kindergarten. House Bill 382 provides full-day funding for the 2021-2022 school year.
In the final hours of the session, Republican leadership limited debate on certain bills. Rudy says Democrats were employing something akin to a filibuster tactic to delay votes, especially on issues that he says had already received substantial floor debates and on measures where it was unlikely any votes would be changed.
“They were trying to run out the clock,” says Rudy, “and our members had had enough of it and said let’s limit debate, which is in the rules.”
While they failed to take up measures like voting rights restoration for former felons and an increase to the state gasoline tax, legislators did pass about 200 bills this session. Rudy says he thought the General Assembly might only approve 60 bills at most.
Thayer says he wishes lawmakers of both parties would reduce the number of bills they file each session. Hatton agrees.
“We had over 900 bills filed, and nearly everything that got passed had an emergency clause,” she says. “It became a long short session.”