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Expungement, Abortion, And Elections Bills Clear First Hurdles

Josh James

It's been all quiet on the legislation front in the House and Senate since lawmakers embarked on the 2016 session, but that's expected to change tomorrow as the upper chamber takes up its first high priority bills. Meanwhile, many of the measures winding through committee carry an air of déjà vu.

Felony Expungement

Members of a Kentucky House committee heard testimony Wednesday from a former felon who recounted the story of a 2004 drug charge that sent her down a legal "maze" of dead ends.

A self-described bright student from Harlan County who fell in with the wrong crowd in high school, Rebecca Collett served time behind bars for trafficking in a controlled substance. But upon completing her sentence and being reunited with her children, she said a new reality sank in.

"I was eager to begin our new life together, but what I didn't know is that my sentence was far from over," she said.

Collett then listed a series of obstacles from employment to housing, all stemming from the conviction.  House Bill 40 - giving felons a chance to wipe away Class D felonies from their record - would have helped aided in her reintegration, she said. Still, a handful on the committee harbored doubts about keeping the information from employers.

"Why shouldn't an employer understand an applicant's history and be able to make good decisions about not only whether to hire that applicant, but where to place that applicant?" Lexington Republican Robert Benvenuti asked.

A majority on the panel were unswayed by critics' concerns, sending the bill to the full House. An emotional Collett described the questioning as "intense."

"It's hard not to take that personally because it's me they're talking about," she told reporters.

Expungement legislation has historically fared well in the House, but the Republican-controlled Senate will be the real test  - even with the backing of Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

Informed Consent

Women seeking an abortion in Kentucky would be required to have a face-to-face meeting with a physician at least 24 hours prior to the procedure under a bill passed out of committee Wednesday.

For many years running, Senate Bill 4 has sailed through the Republican-controlled Senate only to stall in the Democratic-led House.

"These pro-life bills, they bottle them up and they do not see the light of day because there are enough Democrats over there," says Sen. Albert Robinson, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection. "Almost all the Republicans will vote for this and a large portion of the Democrats really will vote for this if they get the opportunity."

Advocates contend the state's original statute specifying that the pre-abortion consultation take place in a "individual, private" setting precludes phone consultations. The ACLU's Derek Selznick detected another agenda.

"I see no reason why this bill also doesn't allow for the use of telemedicine unless the intent of this bill is to make it harder for a woman in Kentucky to get an abortion," he argued during testimony.

The bill coasted through committee 9-1, with Democrat Perry Clark supplying the lone no vote.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Republican Budget Chair Sen. Chris McDaniel discusses legislator pensions with the press

Statewide Elections

Amid a slew of familiar Senate bills dealing with abortion and pensions making their way out of committee is a long sought-after measure that would shift Kentucky's off-year gubernatorial elections to even-numbered years. Senate Bill 10 won unanimous approval in committee Wednesday following an appeal by sponsor Chris McDaniel, who estimated state and county governments could reap a collective $17.5 million in savings every four years and jumpstart voter participation in the process.

"It is not out of the ordinary to see a difference between an even-numbered year election and an odd-numbered year election be 20 percent fewer voters," the budget chairman said.

The idea is sure to meet with resistance from some Democrats, who consider the move a political gambit designed to boost Republicans' chances at the ballot box as the state continues to trend red.

Kentucky is one of just five states that hold odd-numbered elections for statewide office. If enacted, the bill would require voter approval of a Constitutional Amendment and take effect in 2024.

Legislator Pensions

Sen. McDaniel says some of the retirement benefits being received by General Assembly members could turn a few heads. The Kenton County Republican is also sponsoring a measure aimed at making legislator pensions more transparent. As it stands, the system is better funded than Kentucky's much debated employee and teacher pensions, but little information about it is available.

McDaniel says the public deserves a look.

"I think you would find that most legislators are normal people who put their pants on every day and go to work like everybody else and they don't draw exorbitant pensions, but I think you would find some select examples that would outrage the public and I think you would find some select examples where the benefits received based off a particular vote could potentially be influenced," he says.

Legislator pensions run through what's called the Judicial Form Retirement System, which operates under the authority of an eight-member board appointed by the governor, lawmakers, and judges.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.