2020 Legislative Session Review
A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Al Gentry
FRANKFORT – By design, new laws are generally difficult to pass. A proposal (bill) can’t begin without at least one legislative sponsor, and then it must navigate through the General Assembly and the governor’s office while competing against hundreds of other bills trying to make the same journey. Limited resources, a ticking clock, a budget year, politics and unforeseen events like a worldwide pandemic make the process exponentially more difficult. In 2020, 933 bills were filed (647 in the House and 286 in Senate). By the time the final gavel fell, only 12% of the filed bills would become law, with the great majority of those being law amendments of fairly minor significance. Although some significant legislation was passed, the 2020 Session will be best remembered by the light activity that occurred during an abbreviated session cut short by the COVID19 pandemic, and perhaps by what legislation “didn’t pass.”
Prior to the arrival of the virus, the United States economy had grown a record 127 consecutive months (over 10 years) since the Great Recession, and Kentucky was no exception. However, the biggest fiscal challenge Kentucky faced was, and still is, that despite this record growth rate, the state’s tax revenues were growing at a “lesser” rate, creating continued shortages in funding to cover basic infrastructure, education, healthcare, and criminal justice needs and services. Mounting retirement liabilities, especially during the lean recessionary years between 2002-10, added additional fiscal pressures on the budget, and has led to 12 straight years of cuts. These simple facts have long shouted out the need for comprehensive structural tax changes and/or following most other states in creating new revenues without directly raising sales or income tax rates on our citizens. This is done through the introduction of new industries.
The new industries I’m referring to are those associated with expanded gaming/tourism and a cannabis production and sales program (medical). Almost all of our neighboring states now have them, and not only are we NOT capturing any out-of-state tourism dollars attributed to these industries, but we continue to lose billions of dollars of discretional spending from our own residents each year to these other states. Gambling and cannabis products are already “very” accessible to our residents, but we get nothing out of it but losses. I continue to work very hard with a bi-partisan group of legislators to advance this legislation that would generate many new jobs and hundreds of millions of new tax revenues for Kentucky. To me, it has always been “low-hanging fruit” when looking for ways to create much needed “new” revenue. But once again, these measures failed to pass due to strong opposition from a solidified sector of the majority party.
As the economic fallout from COVID19 continues, there’s never been a more urgent time to join other states in advancing these logical measures, and I will continue to do what I can to push for their passage. We must quit being last in common-sense action. Regardless of whether any of you would ever gamble or be prescribed medical marijuana, I’m sure most of you agree with me that you’d rather see this available in this state than being asked to pay more taxes. That question is quickly approaching, and I hope you agree with me that I’d rather NOT pay more taxes!
Criminal justice reform – like tax or education reform – is an ongoing, multi-faceted issue. The General Assembly did pass two laws to make it easier for those on probation to reduce their time under state supervision and to let the state move prisoners from overcrowded jails. Still, at a time when our prisons and jails meet or exceed capacity, there is broad agreement that more needs to be done. The House voted for legislation that would raise the dollar amount for felony theft and fraud charges, a figure that has been flat for years. This sensible step could go a long way toward reducing incarceration rates, and allow us to invest more in encouraging rehabilitative services. But it died in the Senate.
One criminal justice measure that should have passed long ago is a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons after they complete their sentence. Governor Beshear did sign an executive order in December restoring these rights for more than 150,000 Kentuckians with a non-violent felony record, but it will take a constitutional amendment to make this permanent. It’s worth noting that nearly every other state already has this in some form. But we failed to advance this once again in Kentucky.
Another proposal that had unanimous support in the House and from the Governor, but mysteriously stalled in the Senate, was one that capped insulin prices for many diabetics at $100 a month. Although production costs for this life-saving drug are low, it nevertheless has seen its consumer price jump in recent years, forcing many diabetics to ration insulin at great risk to their health. I’m proud the House voted unanimously for this bill to keep these costs affordable, but equally mystified as to why the Senate chose not to prioritize passing it.
Enough of what sensible measures “didn’t pass,” let’s go over some that did.
The most important bills that passed were associated with the budget and road plan for the upcoming fiscal year of 2021, which covers July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021, and COVID19 relief bills. The COVID19 relief bills (SB150 and SB177) were mentioned in the previous email, and were simply passed to ease the pain in dealing with the anticipated partial shutdown. The General Assembly only passed a one-year budget and road plan to get us through this year knowing that we were going to have to adjust it after the virus impact regardless. The abbreviated budget basically kept appropriations fairly consistent with the previous budget. A $35 million loan was provided to assist the University of Louisville Hospital in acquiring the failing Jewish Hospital. Part of this loan is forgivable if certain benchmarks are met. This was vital and very important to both the University’s Medical School and for overall healthcare services for the Louisville area.
One “win” for us in Highview in the new road plan was the return of the scheduled Fegenbush Lane interchange improvement project at Outer Loop/Watterson Trail and Beulah Church Road. The project first entered the plan several years ago under former State Representative Larry Clark, advanced in preparations, but was suddenly removed a few years ago by the previous administration. With a new administration and road plan this year, I was able to get the project returned to the plan. Hopefully, we can keep it there until completion and improve congestion in that area.
Road widening to six lanes on the Gene Snyder Freeway will start soon from I-71 to Taylorsville Road. Although the entire Freeway is proposed to be widened eventually, the sections south and west of Taylorsville Road aren’t currently scheduled to take place in the next 6 years. However, I have started to push for expediting the widening between I-65 and Taylorsville Road because I believe the “bottleneck” will be shifting from I-64 area to our area as the current phase is completed. I will stay on this as long as I’m in office.
Two constitutional amendments will go on the November ballot before voters. One known as Marsy’s Law will give victims more of a voice in their criminal cases. If this seems familiar, it’s because a similar amendment was approved in 2018, but later thrown out in court due to improper ballot language. That’s been corrected and is being presented again. The 2nd amendment will ask you to lengthen the terms of district judges and commonwealth’s attorneys to eight years, beginning in 2022 and 2030, respectively.
Speaking of voting, the most “controversial” bill to pass the legislature was Senate Bill 2, known as the Voter ID bill. This bill will now require most voters to show a “photo” ID, starting in November. Current law already requires voters to provide some form of ID, but this new requirement will add another hurdle for many who may not drive, who may have just moved or who may have changed their name because of marriage. Registered voters who currently do not have an updated photo ID can obtain one free of charge at a regional office. I certainly believe in honest elections, but considering many do not live close to these offices, and the fact that you can’t even obtain one right now because of closed offices (virus), I’m afraid the end result will be a number of people being denied their right to vote, which is very unfortunate.
I believe we should have allowed these ID changes to take effect in 2021, which would have given us plenty of time to work out any kinks and insure all who want to vote are able to legally, safely and seamlessly. Governor Beshear vetoed the bill for the same reason, but the majority party overrode his veto. This bill is expected to cost the state millions (similar law cost Indiana $10 million), which is a lot to ask when you consider that we haven’t had one confirmed documented case of in-person voter fraud in 20 years. I guess maybe there are several we don’t know about. Maybe. As of today, it is unknown when these new ID offices will be open and are ready to distribute voter IDs. Stay tuned on this one.
For those who served our country, House Bill 24 allocates money toward designing Kentucky’s fifth veterans nursing home, which will be built in Bowling Green. It’s worth noting the budget includes language stating a sixth will one day be in Magoffin County.
Three other healthcare-related laws will have a broad statewide impact. House Bill 135 will allow physician assistants to prescribe controlled substances, something already possible in every other state; Senate Bill 50 will give the Executive Branch more direct control of Medicaid’s pharmacy program; and House Bill 129 will re-focus public health departments on their core mission while re-allocating money to help those in more rural areas meet these requirements.
In education, the General Assembly approved House Bill 312, which will streamline the transfer of foster children’s academic records from one school district to another. This law will also create a statewide database of foster homes that have been closed by child-placement agencies. Senate Bill 8 builds on last year’s school-safety law by setting goals of having a school counselor or mental health service provider for every 250 students and a school resource officer on every school campus.
In other new laws, the General Assembly:
- Makes it possible for manufacturers of alcoholic beverages to ship their product to customers directly, if sales are allowed where they live. (House Bill 415)
- Gives local governments more authority to run their public retirement system. (House Bill 484)
- Provides those on probation a chance to shorten their punishment by taking positive steps like obtaining their GED. (House Bill 284)
- Improves Kentucky’s human-trafficking laws and requires bus stations, truck stops and airports to prominently post a national hotline where people can report this crime. (House Bill 2)
Some of the other bills to pass this session would do such things as:
- Help struggling rural hospitals by making them eligible for economic development loans offered by the state.
- Give the state more authority to reduce jail overcrowding by moving inmates to facilities having more room;
- Update accountability guidelines for our schools, so the public can better follow where they are doing well and where more improvement is needed;
- Create a new program that will make it easier for state employees to be a living-organ donor; and
- Call on law enforcement agencies to document their guidelines for conducting high-speed chases.
On the downside, the spending freeze in the one-year budget removes funding for all new slots proposed for the Michelle P. and Supports for Community Living Medicaid waiver programs, which help those with intellectual or developmental disabilities live independently at home. These are not only greatly beneficial for Kentuckians with Disabilities, and their families, but they save the state money long-term.
I’m really proud and excited to have created the bi-partisan Engage and Empower Caucus for Kentuckians with Disabilities. We are the first state in the United States to do this, and several are closely watching us ready to follow suit. This is truly a chance for Kentucky to lead at something, and will allow the state legislature to be more in tune with those that advocate for people with disabilities so that we can more effectively and efficiently address the needs of this growing sector of our population. By 2023, 1 in 4 Americans will be 65 or older, and policies related to the health and vibrance of those with disabilities in our communities have never been more important or relevant.
Although our work passing laws in 2020 may be done, it is never too late to let me know your views on issues affecting Kentucky. My email address is Al.Gentry@lrc.ky.gov while the toll-free message line is 1-800-372-7181. Providing COVID19 allows, I hope to be able to get out into every neighborhood in the District this summer and fall. So if you see me, say Hi and tell me what’s on your mind. In the mean time, please take care, be smart, and be safe!