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General Assembly Moves On Priorities Ahead Of Veto Break

Josh James
Senator Steve West (R-Paris) rises to introduce House Bill 520, charter schools legislation, in the Kentucky Senate.

Lawmakers are working against the clock to find consensus on a number of bills from charter schools to Real ID Wednesday, their final chance to pass legislation before the governor weighs vetoes.

Charter Schools

A bill opening the door to charter schools in Kentucky has been the subject of last minute negotiations in Frankfort.

Bowling Green Republican Mike Wilson told Senate colleagues a revised version - including new language regarding teacher qualifications, the lottery process for enrollment, and other sticking points - will give students in lower-performing schools a much-needed new option.

"Charter schools are not a silver bullet and they are not the answer for every single thing in our commonwealth, thus it's not going to be our whole education system," he said. "But it is a tool in the toolbox that will help address some of the most dire situations we find out kids in."

But opponents warn the bill could open up the state's public education system to for-profit entities and bleed funding from traditional public schools. In one of several impassioned pleas by critics, Pikeville Democrat Ray Jones called it a "step backward for Kentucky" and warned of the consequences of moving forward without a funding mechanism in place.

"My children and every other child in the public schools in Kentucky will suffer because of this legislation. There simply isn't enough money to fund elementary and secondary education now, much less with the creation of charter schools," the senator said.

The debate takes place with just two more working days remaining in the 30-day session. Lawmakers are expected to work late tonight ahead of the 10-day gubernatorial veto break.

Update: House Bill 520 passed the Senate on a 23-15 vote. The revised bill now awaits approval in the House. 

Update 2: The Senate attached a a funding proposal to an unrelated budget bill, House Bill 471, and passed the the measure 24-14. It shifts federal and state SEEK dollars toward the cost of covering students who move to charter schools, including transportation. Locally-raised funds would not be included. Districts and mayors would be able to claim 3 percent of state dollars as an "authorizer fee." The action comes after Democrats repeatedly pressed charter supporters on funding during the debate over HB520, charging that public schools would see some of their dollars siphoned away by the alternative schools.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) presides over the Senate on the 28th day of the 2017 legislative session.

Real ID

Legislation bringing Kentucky into compliance with federal Real ID driver's license standards also continues to work its way through the General Assembly.

The effort to bring the commonwealth in line with new license requirements mandated in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks has been marked by extensions, delays, and false starts, but lawmakers believe House Bill 410 will finally put the issue to rest. Under the measure, Kentuckians could opt for a standard driver's license or an upgraded, REAL ID-compliant version that can be used to board domestic flights and access federal military bases.

A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Matt Bevin last year, but sponsor Rep. Jim DuPlessis says he's worked with the administration to craft an acceptable compromise and does not expect a repeat of 2016.

"They support the language that we've put in here. They like the direction of this and I'll be very surprised if that would happen," he told reporters.

REAL ID still has detractors on the right and left, but critics say they appreciate DuPlessis' attempt to allay privacy concerns. The bill ensures birth certificates won't be required to obtain the ID, one of the previous sticking points. But Kate Miller with the ACLU says the fight will likely shift back to the national stage. 

"We still have problems with Real ID and we hope that Congress will repeal it," she says. "Certainly now with the new Congress and the new executive that we have in place, we have an opportunity to look at Real ID again."

While new federal rules would prevent fliers from using non-compliant licenses to board flights starting in 2018, House Bill 410 would not go into effect until 2019. But the sponsor says the Department of Homeland Security is pledging to work with Kentucky to smooth the transition.

Update: The Senate gave final passage to House Bill 410 by a vote of 26-11.

University Boards

Kentucky lawmakers have wrapped up work on a bill that would set guidelines for the governor when replacing entire public university boards or individual members.

The bill cleared its final hurdle Wednesday when the House passed it 60-33. The measure now goes to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

The measure, Senate Bill 107, is a response to upheaval at the University of Louisville, which has had multiple governing boards since last year.

The bill would clarify when and how the governor can remove individual members or entire public university boards.

Background Checks

Kentucky lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would close gaps in checking the backgrounds of people who work with children in schools and camps and as babysitters.

The House sent Senate Bill 236 to Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday.

The measure would allow parents to request background checks of people they employ as babysitters or nannies. It also would require youth camps that receive taxpayer funding to conduct criminal background checks of prospective employees or volunteers.

It applies to schools by expanding the requirement of criminal background checks to include public school staff and contractors working on school grounds during school hours.

Civics Exam

Kentucky high school students would have to pass a civics test in order to graduate under a bill that passed the state legislature.

The state Senate sent Senate Bill 159 to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's desk on Wednesday. The test would be based on the same test immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens. Any student who has already passed a similar test in the past five years would be exempt.

The test would be 100 questions. To pass, students would need to answer at least 60 questions correctly.

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.
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