Kentucky Lawmakers Buckled Down Ahead Of The Veto Deadline. Here's What They Passed.

Mar 14, 2019

Time to exhale. The Kentucky General Assembly spent Thursday rushing to beat the veto deadline, delivering bills dealing with abortion, the powers of the secretary of state, solar energy rates, campus free speech, along with new tax and budget measures, to the governor for his consideration. Here's a breakdown of the major bills passed on day 29 of the 30-day session.

Abortion

Kentucky lawmakers made good on repeated pledges throughout the session to approve a string of anti-abortion bills that critics say amount to a near-total ban on the procedure in the commonwealth.

Despite lengthy floor debates and often emotional committee testimony, measures placing further restrictions on abortion were among the most rapidly-moving pieces of legislation in the 2019 General Assembly. Lawmakers first announced the series of bills in the opening days of the session and have since promised a "watershed year" for abortion opponents.

"Someone asked me how many of these pro-life bills are we going to pass," Republican Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer told the audience at a recent Right to Life rally. "My response: All of them."

Late Thursday, legislators in the GOP-dominated chambers gave final approval to a number of bills that would situate the state as one of the most restrictive in the nation. The debates were raw and heated — with lawmakers speaking of "60 million infants' blood crying from the ground" and warning that women would be forced to carry non-viable fetuses to term under the bill.

"If you're opposed to a safe, legal abortion, I would recommend that you don't have one," Representative Mary Lou Marzian answered.

But legal challenges were also swift. Within minutes of the passage of Senate Bill 9, outlawing abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, the ALCU promised to take Kentucky to court. The group is also vowing to fight House Bill 5, barring abortions based on sex, race, national origin, or disability.

The fetal heartbeat bill contains an emergency clause and will immediately become law with the governor's signature.

Solar Energy

Solar energy backers decried the late night passage of Senate Bill 100, a controversial measure which advocates warn could set back the alternative energy industry.

At issue is what's called "net metering," or the process used to pay customers who sell their surplus solar power back to utility companies. Under the current rules, those customers receive credit equal to the power generated. But under the proposed changes, starting January 1, 2020, new solar-generating customers would see their rates subject to approval by the state Public Service Commission. The fear: Those new rates would go down.

Utilities argue the current system is unfair because it falls on companies to absorb the cost for transmission lines and maintenance.

Democratic House members said the eleventh-hour vote represented a "promise broken," as they expected to hammer out a compromise with the Senate.

Tax & Budget Bills

Wednesday lawmakers approved a bill meant to "clean up" after last year's tax overhaul. An example: fixing language that required nonprofits to collect sales taxes on admissions to their events. The most controversial addition rolls back taxes on Kentucky-based banks, one of the provisions that could, all told, drain another $106 million from state coffers.

Meanwhile, legislators — many reluctantly — agreed to an off-year budget bill that includes new funding for state parks.

"It was a $50 million bond issuance, which will cost about $300 million, give or take, in debt service," Senator Chris McDaniel explained.

The money was requested by the Bevin administration for the first phase of a broader parks improvement initiative. Another $25 will be earmarked for business recruitment efforts by the Cabinet for Economic Development. McDaniel said he hopes the move to open the budget in a non-budget year won't set a precedent.

"I think everybody should take a lesson that we're not going to be doing this regularly," the lawmaker added. "It was poor form on those that brought it to the House and hopefully they will understand that this will be a one-time event."

The House had also pressed to include a $175k pay cut for Charles Grindle, Bevin's Chief Information Officer who is the highest paid CIO in the country, according to the Council of State Governments. That language did not ultimately make it in, but the Senate is promising to examine the issue before the General Assembly adjourns.

"We are discussing it," Senate President Robert Stivers reported.

Secretary Of State Powers

Kentucky's top election official would no longer preside over the state Board of Elections under a bill on its way to the governor.

The language, attached to a separate House bill after it failed pass as a standalone bill in committee, would also make it a misdemeanor to misuse the state's voter registration database and add two former county clerks to the state Board of Elections. It follows a Herald-Leader/ProPublica report detailing accusations of improper data use by Grimes.

"We need a fair, bipartisan oversight of these voter rolls," said Representative Kevin Bratcher. "And that's what this bill will do."

In a statement, Grimes — a Democrat — argued the move puts the state's election security at risk and is part of a "pattern of efforts by the Republican Party to take control of elections processes." Rep. Mary Lou Marzian went after the bill's author, Republican Senate leader Damon Thayer.

"He has created a power grab that decimates our secertary of state's office," the Louisville Democrat said.

The bill is now in the hands of the governor.

Campus Free Speech

A bill setting new college campus free speech guidelines also gained final passage Thursday, essentially doing away with what are commonly known as "free speech zones."

Areas cordoned off for protests at universities would grow to include all open, outdoor venues on campus under House Bill 254. Schools must also affirm their commitment to granting students the "broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue."

"House Bill 254 helps guide universities with free speech, with adopting polices that are consistent with the First Amendment and case law surrounding it," Republican Senator Wil Schroder said, introducing the measure.

Some of those policies, opponents fear, could have unintended consequences. Senator Morgan McGarvey reiterated his discomfort with language impacting counter-protesters, who could not "intentionally, materially, and substantially disrupt another's expressive activity."

"It limits free speech by limiting those who can counter-protest," the Louisville Democrat argued. "The type of speech we most have to protect with the First Amendment is that which we least want to hear."

In a statement, the University Of Kentucky said it has been "neutral" on the proposal and does not believe it would impact current policies with respect to free speech. 

Lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation last year and were unsuccessful. This year, the bill is on its way to the governor.

Religion & Schools

The General Assembly approved two hotly debated measures dealing with faith and public schools — one reocognizing a "Day of Prayer" in public schools and mandating that schools post the national motto "In God We Trust" in a prominent location.

What About Teachers?

Schools were shutttered again Thursday in the state's largest school district as teachers staged their sixth "sick-out" in the span of two weeks, and their third in a row this week. Fayette County schools remained open.

Lively demonstrations persisted despite assurances from legislative leaders that the bills on educators' radar were all but dead. A smaller but no less vocal crowd of teachers assembled in the Capitol, making it clear they were in it for the long haul.

"I'm just so proud of all these members have shown up today, and the parents, and so many students that are here wanting to be a part of holding out legislators accountable," said Kentucky Education Association head Stephanie Winkler.

But not all were celebrating the seeming demise of House Bills 205 and 525, dealing with private school scholarship tax credits and the teacher pension board respectively, or the teacher protests.

Louisville Republican Representative Jason Nemes told the Courier Journal there must be "a response for this illegal action." The paper also reported that the state Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis has requested the attendance records of teachers in 10 districts for the time period spanning the demonstrations.

"While it is important that administrators, teachers and students make their voices heard about issues related to public education policy, advocacy should under no circumstances be putting a stop to learning for entire communities,” Lewis said in a statement.

Kentucky teachers are barred from striking under state law.

"Last night, you had a joint statement from majority and minority of members of leadership in both chambers reassuring (teachers) that these particular issues were handled, and they still choose to not let their kids go to school. But I think it's dead," Senator Chris McDaniel said.

But Winkler countered that it's a matter of trust — and Kentucky lawmakers lost that in 2018, when they passed pension reforms inside what had been a waste water bill.

"There's so much distrust in government right now after the last session," she said. "This is the fruit of that."

What Happens Now

Thursday marked the final working day before Governor Bevin gets a chance to flex his veto muscles.

The General Assembly will return for one more day to override vetoes or pass new bills on March 28th.