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Wrapping Up the 2021 General Assembly

Renee Shaw talks with her guests about the 2021 legislative session. Guests: Ashli Watts, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy; Terry Brooks, executive director of the Kentucky Youth Advocates (via video call); and Josh Crawford, executive director of the Pegasus Institute.
Season 28 Episode 10 Length 56:34 Premiere: 03/29/21


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.

Republican-Controlled Legislature Addresses School Choice, Criminal Justice, and Other Issues

When historians and pundits look back on the 2021 General Assembly, will they write a headline about power grabs and perplexing legislative inconsistencies, or will the session be noted for important reforms and efforts to help Kentucky and Kentuckians recover from a devastating pandemic?

On the eve of the final day of the legislative session, four Frankfort veterans reflected on bills that have been passed and the dynamics that shaped this year’s debates. The conversation featured Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy; Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates; Josh Crawford, executive director of the Pegasus Institute; and Ashli Watts, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Criminal Justice Reforms Advance

Although the no-knock warrant bills got more public attention, lawmakers did pass several other important criminal justice reforms. House Bill 126 raised the felony threshold for theft and fraud offenses from $500 to $1,000. Bailey says the bill represents an important step in criminal justice reform that will help reduce incarceration rates and costs, and prevent many people from having a felony on their records.

“It’s some positive momentum that people could get behind and push through,” says Bailey. “To really move the needle, we’re going to have to build on it.”

Another measure meant to divert youth from the criminal justice system would protect children who commit certain crimes from automatically being tried as adults. Brooks says the mandatory transfer provision of Senate Bill 32 will help protect public safety, provide better outcomes for child offenders, and reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Two bills address the treatment of Kentuckians already in state prisons and after their release. Crawford says Senate Bill 84 is a follow-up to 2018 legislation that ended the practice of shackling inmates during childbirth. The new measure adds postpartum care for inmates who have given birth and bans solitary confinement for pregnant inmates. Crawford says short of execution, solitary confinement is the greatest deprivation of liberty the state can impose.

“That doesn’t make it wrong per se, but it does mean we ought to scrutinize it with the greatest seriousness,” says Crawford. “This bill starts that the process for pregnant women, and I think will start a longer conversation around solitary confinement period.”

House Bill 497 will smooth the transition for inmates back into society by providing them with certificates of employability and new photo IDs. Watts says the new IDs are crucial to helping former felons find work.

“Think about getting out of prison... and you go to apply for a job, and the only form of ID you have is a mug shot,” says Watts. “We weren’t really setting people up to succeed.”

The legislation also provides liability protections for employers who hire the formerly incarcerated.

Other actions provided mixed results. Bailey says House Bill 402 raises the threshold for flagrant nonsupport of children, which he says should reduce the number of impoverished people being jailed for being unable to pay child support. But another measure, Senate Bill 65, will cut off food assistance to children whose parents are behind on their support payments.

Going into the session, Brooks says he was confident lawmakers would finally establish an age at which a child can be held accountable for their actions. Kentucky is one of the few states without such an age limit, according to Brooks. Instead, he says such legislation couldn’t even get a committee hearing this year.

“We can lock up six-year olds when we know that states like Texas and Alabama, not exactly known as radically left-leaning states, have enacted juvenile adjudication age limits,” says Brooks.

COVID Relief and Recovery

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky had the biggest share of unemployed workers of any state in the nation. Even now, the commonwealth still has 100,000 fewer people employed than a year ago.

Families continue to struggle as well. Brooks says two-thirds of families have less income than they did before the pandemic, and more than a third of families still struggle to make their rent or mortgage payments. Even worse, 22 percent of the state’s children didn’t have enough food to eat last week, Brooks says.

Kentuckians as well as the state and local governments benefitted from millions in federal assistance from the CARES Acts. Now the state stands to receive another $2.6 billion from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in early March.

But there’s uncertainty about who will determine how that money gets spent. The Republican-controlled legislature included language in the new state budget that says lawmakers will decide how to appropriate those relief funds. If Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, tries to spend it without legislative approval, the state budget office would face a $900,000 fine.

Crawford says while the governor could act quickly, his actions wouldn’t follow the same deliberative process.

“When you’re talking about billions of dollars, it’s really only appropriate for the legislature to do that, regardless of what the circumstances are,” says Crawford.

Brooks contends Kentuckians who are suffering shouldn’t have to wait for a legislative process to play out.

“Let’s be very clear that what kids are facing and what families are facing is a crisis,” says Brooks. “Kentucky’s families cannot wait... They need relief yesterday.”

In addition to funding broadband internet service for all Kentuckians, Brooks says lawmakers should use the federal money as seed capital to invest in expanding the dependent child credit and implementing a refundable earned income tax credit – tax policies that he says will help families and the state budget.

But Bailey says the state must use caution in considering any new tax policies. Language in the American Rescue Plan prevents states from using those federal dollars to fund tax cuts. He says lawmakers have already approved some $650 million in tax breaks, including last-minute incentives for the film and television industry, and money to renovate Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel.

“A lot of states are stopping passing any more tax cuts… so that they don’t get dinged and have their federal aid reduced,” says Bailey. “We can’t give this opportunity away because it’s not coming back. This is a one-time chance.”

Watts says the biggest concern for the business community is unemployment insurance. Because of record numbers of claims filed last year, the state depleted its Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and got a $700 million loan from the federal government to cover benefit payments. As a result, businesses already hit hard by the pandemic are facing starkly higher unemployment insurance costs.

“If we really want to make sure that we get people back to work, get back businesses back online,” says Watts, “we need to look at the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, and I think that really is a bipartisan issue.”

Watts says she would allocate about $1 billion of the American Rescue Plan money to pay off the federal loan and replenish the UI trust fund. She says the state should also invest in broadband expansion and infrastructure improvements. She says creating jobs, attracting new businesses, and ensuring existing businesses survive the pandemic is the best way to help struggling families.

The Chamber also wants the state to reinstate the condition that those on unemployment actively search for work. That requirement was suspended for the pandemic, but Watts says employers are eager to have people apply for the thousands of jobs currently open in the state.

School Choice Legislation

The panelists split on House Bill 563, which would enable students to attend a school outside of their home districts. It also creates so-called education opportunity accounts to provide financial assistance to impoverished families that want to send their children to a different school or get other academic training not otherwise available to them. Eligible students in the state’s largest counties could also use the money to attend a private school. The state will provide a tax credit of up to $25 million for individuals who donate scholarship funds.

Bailey calls the legislation “a voucher program.”

“It’s a step toward dismantling our public education system,” says Bailey. “What we’re doing is we’re taking money out of the General Fund that goes primarily to education and we’re giving it to private entities funded by large, wealthy donors.”

Crawford contends the tax credit will not hurt public schools because the $25 million cap is a tiny fraction of the $8 billion that public education in the commonwealth receives from federal, state, and local sources. Plus he says funding a tax credit does not take money away from the per-pupil funding that school districts receive called SEEK.

“By that logic, any money spent on the state police is taken away from K-12 education, any money spent on infrastructure is taken away from K-12 education,” says Crawford. “It is not a question of undermining public education, it’s about giving choice and opportunity to the families that don’t currently have it.”

Brooks says similar programs in other states have provided critical academic assistance to children with severe handicaps. At the same time, though, he fears Kentucky’s money could wind up going to wealthier families who don’t necessarily need financial aid. Brooks says students who receive these funds should have to take all of the state’s accountability tests so that their academic performance can be tracked against other public school students.

Shifting the Balance of Political Power

Lawmakers also passed several bills to shift certain powers from the state’s governor to other executive branch offices or to the legislature. Crawford says these changes are result of long-standing tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government, and unique circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

Bailey says the bills are simply partisan politics by a Republican-dominated legislature against a Democratic governor. He says the pandemic made clear the need for a chief executive who can act quickly and decisively in an emergency, rather than waiting for 138 lawmakers to legislate a response.

Watts says Chamber members are more interested in legislation getting passed than how the branches of government share power.

“I think Kentuckians want policy that will get people back to work and recover, not political fighting,” says Watts.

From the separation of powers debate, Brooks hopes a new paradigm will emerge for how lawmakers and governors work together.

“Maybe, just maybe a new form of thinking and strategy could emanate from this current food fight that we’re seeing,” says Brooks.

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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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