When state lawmakers convene at noon on Monday, they’ll have just one more day after that to wrap up their business before week’s end. Negotiations over public pension reform, military overseas voting and industrial hemp are rumored and reported to have been going on since legislators packed up to head home for a 10-day recess for the governor to issue any vetoes.
On Friday afternoon, Governor Steve Beshear pulled out his veto pen on a controversial “religious freedom” measure, House Bill 279. The bill passed the state House on a vote of 82 to seven with 11 members not voting on March 1st. It was initiated by conservative Nicholasville Democrat Bob Damron, a former member of House leadership. Legislative leaders from both parties in the lower chamber supported it, while 7 democrats from Louisville and Lexington cast dissenting votes. The state Senate overwhelmingly endorsed House Bill 279 on March 7th with 6 democrats voting ‘no.’ It was sent to the governor on March 11th.
Friday, the governor issued his objection declaring that “I value and cherish our rights to religious freedom and I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279 and the members of the General Assembly who supported this bill to protect our constitutional rights to practice our religion. However, I have significant concerns that this bill will cause serious unintentional consequences that could threaten public safety, health care, and individuals’ civil rights. As written, the bill will undoubtedly lead to costly litigation. I have heard from many organizations and government entities that share those same concerns. Therefore, after giving this measure thoughtful analysis and consideration, today I vetoed the bill.”
Groups ranging from gay rights advocates to quasi-governmental agencies (Kentucky Association of Counties, Ky. League of Cities and Ky. County Judge/Executive Association) and civil rights organizations staunchly denounced the measure and urged the governor to veto it. Earlier this week, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer penned his arguments for why it shouldn’t become law.
Opposition forces to House Bill 279 say civil rights protections and laws could be disregarded if a person believes those laws substantially burden sincerely-held religious beliefs.
Senate Republican majority floor leader Damon Thayer Tweeted his disappointment with Governor Beshear’s action and urged House Democrats to override it so the Senate can do the same. He continued: “I look forward to making the motion.” The Senate President’s communications director Lourdes Baez Schrader said that “the Senate is prepared to override the veto of HB279 if and when the Speaker moves to do so.” She added, “As a House bill, that chamber must act on the bill first.”
Our public radio partner WFPL has comment from bill sponsor Bob Damron and Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation in this report,
We’ll have coverage of lawmakers’ actions on this bill and more when they convene Monday. Watch action as it happens live online at ket.org/legislature or on our Kentucky Channel.
Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter for constant updates and tune in Monday night at 11pm ET on KET for a recap of the day’s events.
A common quizzical refrain buzzing through the Capitol campus corridors: will this year go down as a do-nothing session of the Kentucky General Assembly? The answer is relative and can be answered both ways.
If you measure success by a bargain on pension reform, industrialized hemp, tax reform, redistricting – the answer is likely ‘no.’
But, if you deem the session victorious for independent review of child death or near death cases stemming from abuse or neglect; raising the school dropout age from 16 to 18; stiffening laws and penalties for human trafficking while granting child victims safe harbor and giving bonding authority to the state’s public universities to build or renovate dormitories, academic buildings and sports complexes — you’ll quickly respond in the affirmative.
According to the Legislative Research Commission website, 101 pieces of legislation have been delivered to the governor so far. There were 216 Senate bills and 458 House bills filed for consideration in a 30-day session, a total not including the mounds of resolutions in each chamber. Simple math will direct you to your own conclusion about productivity or lack thereof. And, many contend that it’s not the number that counts, but the substance. Here’s some proof:
The first bill to reach the governor’s desk (on Feb 21st) was House Bill 7 that gives bonding authority to six of the state’s eight public universities for eleven campus construction projects totaling $363 million. The package includes $110 million in renovations to the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium.
Two weeks later, minor adjustments to the hallmark prescription drug abuse legislation of 2012 were approved. House Bill 217 tweaks laws that regulate pain management clinics, commonly called “pill mills” and requires doctors and pharmacists to use the state’s prescription drug monitoring system, KASPER. House Speaker Greg Stumbo and House Judiciary chairman John Tilley’s HB 217 exempts hospitals, long-term care facilities and hospice programs from some of the law’s restrictions on prescribing and dispensing narcotics.
Child advocates statewide were jubilant over the passage of two measures they say offer more protections and services to abused, neglected, and exploited children. House Bill 3 strengthens Kentucky’s human trafficking laws and offers “safe harbor” for child victims of trafficking –- giving them health and counseling services instead of locking them up for prostitution. It also establishes a victims’ fund from fines and asset seizure of traffickers. And, House Bill 290 makes permanent a 20-member external child fatality and near-death review panel that will have access to full and complete records of neglect and abuse cases. The Kentucky Youth Advocates applaud the measure for striking a balance between public disclosure and protecting sensitive information beyond the victim and perpetrator. Both of those measures were sent to the governor on Tuesday.
A compromise measure long in the making aims to lower the high school dropout rate by keeping kids in school until they turn 18. The initial language of Senate Bill 97 gave every school district the option of upping the legal school dropout age from 16 to 18. That still stands, but the House added language mandating that it will become mandatory statewide four years after more than half of the state’s districts implement it.
Skeptics of the school dropout plan are pessimistic that raising dropout age will actually increase graduation rates. Meade County Democrat Jeff Greer sponsored a rival bill in the state House that would gradually raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 statewide. He’s been on the compulsory attendance beat for at least four sessions, and this time around the compromise sealed the deal.
Louisville Democrat Reginald Meeks, a co-sponsor of the measure, offered some reserved praise. He said lawmakers are backing into a decision instead of forging ahead with progressive, forward-thinking action.
Madisonville Republican Ben Waide has been a relentless foe of the school dropout measure. He stood again to sternly assert that research shows raising the dropout age doesn’t guarantee an improvement in graduation rates.
The House approved the amended school dropout measure on a vote of 88 to ten. The Kentucky State Senate gave it final passage on a vote of 33 to 5. When the measure hit the Senate floor, it was carried by Senator David Givens of Greensburg, who said it had all the elements of a great compromise measure –- time, leaders, and substance. He said the bill wouldn’t work without a number of vigilant supports to see the red flags as youngsters fall into distress, especially early in the game.
Former governor Julian Carroll, who became Frankfort’s state senator in 2005, stressed the value of education for its capacity to prepare students for productive citizenship. He noted the high correlation between dropouts and prisoners.
Though Senate Bill 97 cleared the Senate 33 to 5, four Republicans joined Independent Bob Leeper in dissent. Governor Beshear and the First Lady released a statement of appreciation for passage of what they call “the graduation bill.” The statement said in part that Senate Bill 97 “will help to break the cycle of poverty, close the revolving door of prison, and improve the quality of life for all Kentuckians.”
The ACLU of Kentucky and the Fairness Campaign are among the groups pressuring Governor Steve Beshear to veto the ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act” embodied in House Bill 279. Defenders of the measure contend their religious freedoms have been under attack by the government at all levels, while opponents believe the idea will lead to discrimination of gays and lesbians and an erosion of civil rights protections by allowing folks to assert a deeply held religious belief for not doing business or interacting with minority groups. The governor has yet to announce his intentions toward the bill. He could allow it to become law without his signature.
Senate Republican Leader Damon Thayer recited a lyric from the Rolling Stones in announcing a compromise on a bill giving more transparency to special taxing districts such as water and sewer districts, librarie, and fire departments. “You can’t always get what you want,” said Thayer of House Bill One. He has often bemoaned those special purpose government entities as exacting taxation without representation and argued for more local government control over their ability to levy taxes and fees. In the end, negotiators agreed making special taxing districts hold public meetings before increasing taxes or fees and to give reports to fiscal courts regarding their budgets. Non-compliance with the new rules could subject these boards to an audit by state officials and jeopardize state funding.
What’s undone? Hemp, pension reform, redistricting, and a slew of other headline-drawing issues. I’ll break those down next week.
By a mostly party-line vote, the Kentucky state House advanced Democratic leadership’s plan to redraw boundaries for House districts on Wednesday.
Legislative lines drawn last year were declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court and it left the mapping scheme from 2002 in place. Redistricting is required after a decennial census to take into account shifts or growths in population. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, the mastermind of the remapping plan before the House mid-week, called the chore personal and often divisive, claimed it’s a mere puzzle of math. His House Bill 2 splits 24 counties which is the minimum, mandated number by the courts; the two additional counties that are split are Graves in the west and Harlan County in the east. It also pairs 11 Republican incumbents against each other and one Democrat against a Republican in the new mapping scheme. A contentious calculation in the redraw is the exclusion of the federal prisoner population. To that point, Speaker Stumbo gave this explanation.
Hoover continued a diatribe about rule-breaking referring to a plan for funding public pensions and other matters. Hoover accused House Democratic leadership of using adjusted, manipulated numbers this year that they didn’t use last year to achieve a political goal of maintaining control in the House.
Several aggrieved by the new map proposal rose to denounce it. House Speaker Greg Stumbo was unmoved and in his signature country lawyer vernacular he spouted that when it comes to redrawing legislative lines “somebody’s ox is getting gored.” While he had the body’s attention, he also rebuffed accusations that he’s obstructing compromise or passage of two prominent bills this session: public pension reform and hemp.
After about 85 minutes of floor debate, House Democratic leadership’s new maps for state House districts cleared the House in mostly partisan divide 53 to 46.
The hemp bill Speaker Stumbo alluded to cleared the House Agriculture committee Wednesday morning with minimal opposition. Whether or not the measure, Senate Bill 50, gets a floor vote in the House is concerning supporters. The Speaker claims the hemp measure contains an appropriation, and applying his logic means the measure should have originated from the House. And, the Speaker also isn’t convinced a state law is necessary and asked Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway to render an opinion. On Thursday, as Tom Loftus of The Courier-Journal wrote “the attorney general agreed with Stumbo that Kentucky would be forced to adopt any change in hemp policy at the federal level. But the opinion also said that if the federal government legalized hemp without providing a regulatory framework, ‘industrial hemp would be essentially unregulated in Kentucky after the mandatory adoption of the federal definition.’”
Senate Bill 50 doesn’t allow hemp to be grown in Kentucky, as it’s currently banned by the federal government. But, it does establish a regulatory framework in case the feds lift the ban or Kentucky is granted a waiver. A recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll found that 65 percent of Kentuckians favor legalizing hemp for industrial uses, compared to 22 percent opposed and 13 percent unsure.
The Kentucky State Police and prosecutors worry that hemp legalization will complicate drug eradication and enforcement efforts because of the physical similarities of hemp and marijuana that they contend make them indistinguishable by the naked eye. Hemp has a much smaller concentration of the psychoactive or intoxicating ingredient, THC, that’s found in marijuana. Hemp fibers can be used for fuel, apparel, cooking, plastics, and moisturizing creams. It’s still uncertain whether or not House Democratic leadership will call the bill up for a floor vote in the 4 days remaining this session.
In the mad dash to hoist bills across the legislative finish line, the Kentucky State Senate toiled nearly until midnight last night. Among the cluster of measures approved was a human trafficking bill that took a rather twisted and, at times, uncertain path through the legislative process. House Bill 3 is called ‘safe harbor legislation’ because it treats children who are sexually exploited for profit as victims as opposed to criminals. Like other child victims of abuse or neglect, they would be eligible for state services. The bill also calls for a victims’ fund to be created from fines and asset seizure of traffickers; victims of forced labor would be able to sue for unpaid wages and law enforcement would trained on recognizing the crime.
According the Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition, 101 victims of human trafficking have been identified in Kentucky, 44 of them were children. The State Senate passed House Bill 3 with some minor changes that must be approved by the House before it’s sent on to the governor’s desk.
Around 11:00 last night, the State Senate awarded final passage to a religious freedom measure that that allows citizens to ignore laws that substantially burden their religious beliefs. Opponents argue it endangers civil rights protections, stokes discrimination against gays and lesbians, and even endorses domestic violence under a person’s warped biblical interpretation.
The text of the House Bill 279 reads as follows: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be substantially burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.”
House Bill 279 passed 29 to 6 and now heads to the governor’s desk for his approval, veto, or he can let it become law without his signature.
State lawmakers agreed to change the session calendar and cancel class for today. The move means legislators will work both Monday and Tuesday of next week before taking a 10- day recess for gubernatorial veto consideration. The last day of the 30-day session is slated for March 26th. They are constitutionally bound to conclude their business by March 30th.
Tune in Monday night at 11pm ET for day 27 coverage of the 2013 Kentucky General Assembly in Regular Session, and follow @ReneeKET throughout the day for updates.