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Legislative Update: 3/24/21

By: Robin L. Webb
for Carter County Times

FRANKFORT – 

’Twas the night before veto days
In the Senate and the House, 
So much was occurring,
concurring, and choused.
Some bill drafts were burning,
churning hot off the press, 
Some did more for Kentuckians,
But others did less. 

The clock struck midnight as the Kentucky General Assembly adjourned on Day 28 of the 2021 Regular Session. It marked the end of a “vote-a-rama,” when dozens of bills finished springing out of the legislature in the final two days before members recessed for the “veto period.” 

It’s been a strange year and a different session while dealing with this global pandemic. 

Both the Senate and House approved the second half of a 24-month spending plan, addressing uncertainties left when COVID-19 cut negotiations short nearly a year ago. The new 1-year budget in House Bill (HB) 192 will essentially piggyback on the document lawmakers adopted in 2020. While Kentucky expects to receive approximately $2.5 billion in one-time federal COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the state awaits more clarification on the exact amount and guidelines on how the dollars can be distributed. 

I was hoping for increases in funding for access to clean water and expanded broadband throughout the state. Also, we could have done more regarding public school funding and COVID-19 relief for individuals and small businesses. However, the federal dollars Kentucky obtains will be used to underwrite an opportunity to support critical services, upgrade infrastructure, and stimulate the economy. Once Kentucky receives more direction from the feds, I am hopeful we will be bold, taking action on initiatives that will benefit all Kentuckians and will position us for the future, as we come out on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Other appropriations in the 2021-22 fiscal year state/executive branch budget that are expected include:

$1.7 million for Bluegrass Station Airport and Air Park in Lexington.

$4.1 million in federal funds for pandemic related-relief programs.

Full funding of the actuarially required contributions for the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System and Kentucky Employees Retirement System. 

HB 192 passed the Senate 30-0-6 before being approved in the House of Representatives by a 74-23 vote. The General Assembly also passed the legislative branch budget, contained in House Bill 194, and the judicial branch budget, outlined in House Bill 195. 

Other measures passed on the Senate floor: 

HB 126 raises the threshold of felony theft to $1,000. Under current law, stealing anything worth $500 or more is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. HB 126 also allows police to charge members of organized shoplifting rings with a felony if a member stole a total of $1,000 worth of merchandise over 90 days. I supported this because it is estimated to save the state $4 million a year in prison costs, and allows law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes. It passed in the Senate by a 25-11 vote. 

HB 258 makes changes to the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) for new members after 2022 by moving them into a hybrid plan. I think these changes are unnecessary and will hurt recruitment and retention of teachers. We are currently on track to meet TRS pension obligations by 2040 without changes, and I believe this will disrupt that progress. We need to be doing more by uplifting and supporting our teachers, not falling behind by undermining them. This bill passed the Senate by a 25-11 vote. I voted no. 

HB 272 allows a water district or a water association to charge a late payment charge of 10% of the amount billed. I do not believe this is the time for this legislation. It hurts consumers, especially in eastern Kentucky, where many are hurting due to a pandemic, ice storms, and floods. I voted no. However, the measure passed the Senate 25-10. 

HB 273, known as the Bailey Hope-Preston Cope Victims Privacy Act, will exclude from the Open Records Act photographs or videos that depict a person’s death, killing, rape, or sexual assault or abuse except to any victim involved in the incident, any state agency or political subdivision investigating official misconduct, a legal representative of any involved party, and others listed in the bill. It passed unanimously. 

HB 320 aims to allocate $250 million to expand broadband in the Commonwealth. It allows distribution cooperatives to facilitate operations of broadband services to unserved and underserved households and businesses. The public health crisis revealed the lack of broadband accessibility many Kentuckians struggle with across the state. HB 320 will bring equity to those areas by increasing connectivity, which is a necessity in 2021. It passed the Senate by a vote of 36-0. 

HB 328 re-establishes Kentucky’s regulatory authority for roadside billboards after a federal court ruling called the state’s prior regulations into question. HB 328 passed the Senate 30-6. 

HB 574 expands Kentucky elections in several ways. Now, you will be able to vote in-person for several days before Election Day, and there will be more ways to qualify for absentee ballots. This bill could have been better and could have gone much further. However, it increases access to voting in Kentucky, which I fully support. It passed in the Senate 33-3. 

HB 563, known as the school choice bill, allows students to use funds from Education Opportunity Accounts (EOAs) to attend a public school outside his or her district. In a few counties, including Jefferson and Fayette, those monies could be used for students to attend private schools. I fear the legislation undermines public education by siphoning off public dollars to benefit private and religious institutions at the expense of the most vulnerable students. There is also no language to prohibit discrimination in schools accepting EOA payments, which may lead schools to cherry-picking students. HB 563 passed in the Senate by a vote of 21-15. I voted no. 

All these bills now go to the Governor, who has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign the measures or veto any items in the budget or the entire spending plan. Members will return on Monday, March 29, and Tuesday, March 30, to review vetoes handed down by the Governor. A majority vote of elected members in the House and Senate is required to override a veto. 

If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, I remain accessible by email at Robin.Webb@LRC.KY.GOV. For more information on the 2021 General Assembly, visit http://www.legislature.ky.gov. You can also leave a message for me on the Legislative Message Line at (800) 372-7181. Citizens with hearing impairments can use the Kentucky Relay Service at 711.

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