Legislative Update, Feb. 18th

Legislative Update, Feb. 18th

FRANKFORT – With this year’s 60-day legislative session having reached its mid-point this past Wednesday, now is an ideal time to reflect on what has been done and review what lies ahead before the General Assembly completes its work in mid-April.

It’s important to emphasize that halfway on the calendar does not mean the legislature’s work is half over.  Indeed, fewer than 10 bills have become law so far, but dozens of others will invariably join them in the weeks ahead as the House and Senate seek common ground and compromise.

At the moment, the legislature’s biggest issues – adopting a two-year budget for state government and redistricting – are still in holding patterns, although for different reasons.

The Kentucky House voted for its version of the Executive Branch budget on the session’s 12th day, which was weeks earlier than in the past.  The spending plans for the Legislative and Judicial branches and the state Road Fund, however, have yet to clear committee, much less the chamber.

Republican House leaders said they rushed this process so they could focus on tax reform, but, as we approach the end of February, nothing has been proposed, which is worrisome.

In 2018, the last time the legislature voted for major tax reform, that plan was made public and approved by the General Assembly on the same day – a breathtaking and brazen decision, given it raised state taxes by almost a half-billion dollars over two years.

For the moment, the fate of redistricting rests in the hands of the courts, which will begin hearing arguments early next month.  This case is centered on the new state House map and the one for Congress.  That one features what has to be one of the country’s most oddly drawn districts, because it begins at the Mississippi River and stretches along much of the Tennessee border before snaking up to include our state capital.

Among the few new laws, one sets aside $200 million for communities affected by December’s deadly tornadoes, and another guarantees that those in long-term care will be able to have a loved one or close friend visit while pandemic-rules are in place.  With COVID in mind, a third law is giving schools greater flexibility when it comes to remote instruction.

In the state House, there have been several positive bills sent to the Senate and several others that deserve to stay stuck there.

On the positive side, the House voted unanimously on Friday for House Bill 174, which would extend Medicaid’s postpartum coverage for new mothers for up to a year.

This legislation is part of the Kentucky House Democratic Women’s Caucus’ slate of bills designed to improve maternal and infant health.  The United States ranks last among wealthy nations in this area, and Kentucky’s average is much worse than that.

It’s estimated that 60 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in the country are preventable.  Here, that number is 80 percent.  Lengthening Medicaid coverage for many new mothers is an important part of what needs to be a multi-pronged solution.

House Bill 222 also passed unanimously on Friday, and it would add Kentucky to the list of 30 or so states with anti-SLAPP protections.  The acronym stands for “strategic lawsuit against public protection,” and it occurs when a powerful person or organization frivolously uses the courts to silence critics.  This legislation draws broad support from across the political spectrum.

On Thursday, the House voted overwhelmingly for House Bill 250, which will provide $23 million that Kentucky State University needs to finish the fiscal year while establishing a plan going forward designed to put the university on stronger financial footing.

Some other bills to clear the House in the last seven weeks include House Bill 44, which would add mental health as a valid reason for an excused absence in schools; House Bill 56, which would provide $80,000 in-the-line-of-duty death benefits to families of first responders who die from COVID; and House Bill 317, which would make it easier for charitable organizations to help Kentuckians who cannot pay premiums or other payments to their health insurers.  Some insurers inexplicably have blocked this type of help.

One bill that I believe should not become law is House Bill 4, which would slash unemployment insurance payments.  This will have an outsized impact on women and minorities as well as those in rural areas with limited job openings.

The state is poised to pay back the money borrowed from the federal government the last two years to provide unemployment insurance benefits, which makes this draconian step even less necessary.  I believe we need to increase our low labor-participation rate, but harming those who lost a job through no fault of their own and want nothing more than to return to a similar job is not the way to do it.

Another bill approved by the House last week that is troubling calls on all schools to have a school resource officer by this summer or as soon as possible (HB63).  This one-size-fits-all approach undercuts local decision-making and puts a sizable unfunded mandate on school districts.  An attempt to have the state pay for the cost at a time of record revenues was unfortunately not approved.

Two other school-related bills to clear committee last week also remove local control.  One would cruelly bar trans female students from participating in sports offered by their school (HB23) and the other would keep school districts from enforcing mask mandates (HB51).  That particular bill arrives less than six months after the General Assembly voted in special session to give these districts the authority to make that very decision.

My statement against HB51, a bill that takes away the local control of our school boards to keep students and staff safe.

In a move that has ties to the legislature, Governor Beshear issued an executive order on Wednesday that will provide immediate relief on property taxes on our vehicles, which have seen costs soar by 40 percent.  This order will have us effectively pay what we did last year, and the General Assembly has legislation that would put something similar into place.

On the same day Gov. Beshear signed that order, he also put his support behind a plan to lower the state sales tax from six cents to a nickel for the upcoming fiscal year.  Combined, the cut in vehicle property taxes and the proposed bill to scale back the sales tax would save Kentuckians about $1.2 billion.

It’s impossible to predict what will become law and what will have to wait another year in the handful of weeks the General Assembly has left. The only thing I know for sure is that your input is crucial in this process.

You can keep up with such things as bills and votes by visiting the General Assembly’s website (legislature.ky.gov). To leave a message for me or any other legislator (or all of us), you can call 1-800-372-7181. This service is available during normal business hours throughout the year, but is open longer during legislative sessions.

If you would like to watch legislative proceedings, KET has an app for that, and you can also search for “LRC livestreaming” which will take you to the website where you can access meetings as they happen. All are also archived.

In addition to leaving me a phone message, you also the have the option to email me at [email protected].

I try to get my weekly update out as soon as possible, but I’m juggling a lot of balls here in Frankfort. You are welcome to follow my Twitter account @tinaforkentucky for immediate updates on legislative issues.

Take care and stay healthy,

Tina Bojanowski