Closely-watched bills on medical marijuana, LGBTQ issues, 'skill games' all on the move
Tuesday began as another fast-paced day in Frankfort as the clock ticks down on the 2023 regular legislative session.
In a major step, a medical marijuana bill was heard and passed through a Kentucky Senate committee Tuesday, with the help of an unlikely "yes" vote.
"I don't want to be high. I just want to feel better."Eric Crawford, medical marijuana advocate
Eric Crawford, a quadriplegic injured in a car crash who has been lobbying Kentucky lawmakers for the right to use medicinal cannabis for a decade, said he depends on the product to relax muscle spasms and his battle for legalization has always been about relief.
You could hear that same sentiment in the voice of Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, a champion for the cause in the House.
"For the countless people that this will help, how can you not be emotional," the Louisville lawmaker said, tearing up.
That heartfelt testimony is what long-time medical marijuana naysayer Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer credits with changing his mind on the bill, which he supported in a surprise yes vote — though the measure passed easily 8-3. But the lopsided committee vote and the fresh support from an influential Republican voice don't necessarily make for a done deal.
"This is not a slam dunk to pass the full Senate," the leading Republican said. "I don't know that we have the votes, but one step at a time. It's out of committee. It'll get a reading on the floor today and we'll continue to assess the situation like we're doing on a number of controversial bills right now."
Opponents continue to argue medical cannabis needs more study.
For Crawford's part, he's delighted by the bill's progress but still in wait-and-see mode. While House supporters feel confident their chamber would deliver on whatever the Senate might approve, a lot hinges on the final days of the session. Should medical marijuana finally become law, Crawford says his entire status would change.
Asked what his life would look like if the bill passes, he replied, "I'm not a criminal, not a criminal. I don't have to fear law enforcement, don't have to worry about it. I'm a safe man, live in a safe state."
Pieces of different bills, all dealing with LGBTQ-related issues, have been tacked on to an anti-gender transitioning legislation to create a new measure that critics fear is even more far reaching.
House Bill 470, which would put healthcare providers at risk of losing their license if they provide gender transitioning services for those under 18, is getting longer — with portions of other bills now attached.
Among the added provisions: barring schools from requiring teachers to use students' preferred pronouns, alerting parents to classroom content involving sexuality, and, as Sen. Max Wise explained, a number of age restrictions on curricula.
"For children in grades 5 and below, that they do not receive any instruction through curriculum or programs on human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases," Wise explained. "Secondly, any child, regardless of grade level, shall not receive any instruction or presentation that has a goal or purpose of students studying or exploring gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation."
The evolving package of reforms passed 6-3 in committee, with several Republicans cautioning they would need to see changes before voting it out of the Senate.
Leader Thayer said it's a work in progress.
"There are people all over the board on that issue," he told reporters. "Some want it stricter, some want it to loosen the provisions, so we've still got a couple days to figure that out."
Lawmakers have through Thursday to pass bills before to the governor's two-week veto window.
A bill revived by the Kentucky House that would ban controversial gaming systems — labeled "gray machines" by critics — took another step toward the governor's desk Tuesday.
You might have seen the slots-like machines in gas stations, bars, or restaurants. The question swirling around them: Are they a form of gambling that falls outside state law? Mark Guilfoyle, executive director for Kentuckians Against Illegal Gambling, says the answer is clear.
"Kentucky law, existing law, is very clear that any game that involves risking something of value to win a prize based on any element of chance is gambling, and therefore prohibited," he testified. "Gray games undeniably involve an element of chance, so they're illegal."
But operators of the games maintain there is skill involved and players can learn to master them. Instead, they see the proposed ban as an effort by the horseracing industry to monopolize gaming.
"We did not intend to skirt the law, nor were we trying to operate in the gray area and do not believe we are," Howard Greer with Prominent Technologies said. "We have no desire or capabilities to be of any competition with the $6.9 billion dollar handle that is historical horseracing."
The bill, which would outlaw the machines and fine violators $25,000, cleared a Senate committee and moves to the full chamber.
UPDATE (4:30 pm):
A bill banning controversial gaming systems — labeled "skill games" by supporters and "gray machines" by critics — appears poised to hit the books.
The Kentucky Senate has handed final approval to House Bill 594, making it clear the General Assembly views the gaming machines that have popped up in bars and convenience stores as an illegal form of gambling.
Bill supporter Mike Wilson said the measure will eliminate the so-called "gray" legal area where the machines have been operating.
The bill has been the subject of a great deal of lobbying, both by game supporters, who say they rely on the income generated by them, and by the horseracing industry, which sees the games as a threat to their bottom line.
The ban on the gaming machines now heads to the desk of Gov. Beshear, who has signaled support for it.