Legislative Update – Week 9

This week’s 30-day Regular Session activity ended with over 100 bills on the Governor’s desk. Having already completed 28 legislative days, both the House and the Senate raced to approve bills through the process until the figurative and literal 11th hour.

We’ve now entered into the veto recess period, which means this week was the last opportunity for lawmakers to pass bills and still have the opportunity to override any gubernatorial vetoes before the final day of the legislative session. The Governor has 10 days to sign a bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it.

The Kentucky General Assembly approved the second half of the state’s 24-month spending plan this week after uncertainties from COVID-19 cut budget negotiation short nearly a year ago.

The executive budget, contained in House Bill 192, is as a near continuation budget from the previous fiscal year with necessary modifications. In addition to making structural changes that would ensure the road fund was spent on roads, the executive budget would put $134 million into the rainy day fund this year and another $609 million next year. The executive budget also includes a 2 percent increase in funding for higher education through a performance-based model, targeted raises for crime lab technicians, and money for the coroner’s office. This budget also addresses Kentucky’s severely outdated unemployment insurance system.

This budget’s spending plan would also return coal severance money, or the tax revenue from mining coal, back to coal-producing counties at record percentages.

Senate changes to the budget’s accompanying revenue measure, known as House Bill 249, would allow the motor vehicle commission to charge new fees, expand the film industry tax credit, increase the cap on the historic preservation tax credit, allow a one-year property tax exemption for veterans service organizations and deal with an emergency disaster relief account within the road fund.

We are taking a careful and conservative approach as we continue to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic. The state has received many one-time dollars from the federal government through the CARES act and the most recent federal stimulus package. Due to these federal funds boosting our society’s various sectors, the economic outlook and state revenue may be artificially inflated. There is no sure way of knowing what state revenues or the economy will look like once there is no stimulus money to help prop things up. It would be financially irresponsible for the state to use one-time dollars to put Kentucky taxpayers on the hook for recurring expenses in future years when we will not lean on federal funds.

An essential aspect of the budget is it maintains legislative authority on the allocation of funds, as required by the Constitution of Kentucky. The bill stipulates that the General Assembly must authorize the use of these monies. $37 million in federal dollars will go towards grants to detect, diagnose, trace and monitor COVID-19 infections in congregate and vulnerable populations. Additionally, $10 million in state dollars will go to the School Facilities Construction Commission for schools recently damaged by flooding.

A critical element in the economic growth of our state is access to reliable internet services for Kentuckians. Reliable broadband can be the difference in companies determining to locate into our communities. With the reliance on virtual learning our students have had this past year; it is evident how lack of reliable internet access only exacerbates Kentucky students’ struggles. While COVID-19 forced us to rely on more virtual services, we have also seen growth in telehealth services. Securing reliable internet access to areas currently without it can help our economy, education and even improve health outcomes.

With this in mind, the legislature passed House Bill (HB) 320, allocating $250 million of federal money to expand access to broadband connectivity. However, the bills stipulate that no more than $50 million can be spent before April of next year to make sure efforts are deliberate, effective and will go to the areas that need it most. This initial $50 million will get the ball rolling. Legislators will return next January to provide ample opportunity to assess the efforts made between now and then to determine the best path forward. The funding will be targeted to utilize existing infrastructure and the experienced workforce through electric co-ops. In reality, the allocated funds will equate to $500 million because the $250 million will be used as matching funds for the projects.

Other bills passed in both the House and Senate include:

House Bill 95 aims to help Kentuckians struggling with diabetes by capping the cost of out-of-pocket insulin at $30 for a 30 day supply. It applies to state-regulated, comprehensive, private health insurance plans and the Kentucky employee health plan. It does not apply to Medicare, Medicaid, or self-funded health plans.

For too long, the high cost of insulin has caused patients to ration their supply, resulting in a loss of life. Others have had to make desperate financial decisions to maintain their access to their insulin. Kentucky ranks 8th in the nation in diabetes prevalence and is the 5th highest state in diabetes-related deaths. Between 2000 and 2018, the percentage of Kentuckians diagnosed with diabetes doubled. Diabetes can be associated with heart failure, stroke, blindness, and more.

Senate Bill (SB) 8 provides for opting out of mandatory vaccinations for people with religious or conscientiously held beliefs. The bill maintains employer immunization policies for employees of schools, universities, and health care organizations.

Senate Bill 80 would strengthen the police decertification process in Kentucky by expanding the number of acts considered professional wrongdoing. A second provision would set up a system for an officer’s automatic decertification under certain circumstances. A final provision would prevent an officer from skirting decertification by resigning or retiring before an internal investigation is complete.

House Joint Resolution 77 extends certain COVID-19 and regulations an additional 60 days. This joint resolution, which can carry the force of law, will be effective only if the court ultimately rules in favor of the legislature on pending litigation. The Governor is challenging HB 1 and SBs 1 and 2. Those three bills, if upheld, provide the legislature a seat at the table as life-altering executive decisions are made. It is worth noting that Kentucky is the exception to executive authority rule during a state of emergency. The bills being challenged by the Governor would merely bring Kentucky more in line with other states in regards to oversight of executive authority during times like these.

House Bill 273 named the Bailey Holt-Preston Cope Victims Privacy Act, would exclude from the open records act photographs or videos that depict a person’s death, killing, rape, sexual assault or abuse. It is named in honor of Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, who were killed in the 2018 Marshall County High School shooting at the age of 15.

House Bill 497 would help convicts transition out of prison get jobs, health care, state IDs and access to social services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It would also create a “certificate of employability” to help former inmates find jobs for which they are trained.

House Bill 574 is a bipartisan measure that won support among almost everyone but could not clear the House and head to the Governor’s desk. I believe the bill will ultimately pass and that the governor would not veto the bill. If passed, it expands access to voting by establishing three days for early voting, including a Saturday. This will ease access for working people not to miss time at work, especially first responders. It will also transition Kentucky elections toward universal paper ballots statewide to ensure there is always a paper trail connected to each vote. It also enhances state officials’ ability to remove the names of deceased voters from the voter rolls. Since taking office, Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams has removed nearly 60,000 names from its voter rolls. These include those who are deceased, have moved out of the state, or have committed crimes that disqualify them from voting. Prohibition and strengthening of penalties are included for “ballot harvesting,” which gathers and submits completed absentee or mail-in voter ballots by third-party individuals, volunteers, or workers, rather than submission by voters themselves directly to ballot collection sites. Additionally, the bill makes the online voter portal permanent for absentee ballots to maintain transparency and for both voters and election officials.

The General Assembly will return on March 29 and March 30 for the final two days of the session and sine die adjournment.

Thank you for staying engaged in the legislative process. I continue to be proud and humbled to represent the 17th Senate District.

If you have any questions or comments about these issues or any other public policy issue, please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me Damon.Thayer@LRC.ky.gov. You can also review the legislature’s work online at www.legislature.ky.gov.

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