FRANKFORT– As the 2023 Regular Session of the legislature winds down, we now find ourselves 28 days through the 30-day session. This week, several committees met to hear some of the most controversial and popular bills from this year’s slate of legislation. Nonetheless, it was a busy session, culminating in tension as legislators worked to navigate complex issues and pass meaningful legislation. Despite this, there have also been several productive issues where we saw progress, with legislators working tirelessly to address the most pressing concerns of their constituents.
In typical fashion, the Kentucky General Assembly waited until the final week of the legislative session to start cramming bills onto the docket and rushing them through the process. Yet, this traditional approach ingrained in the state’s institution does not go without its consequences.
One of the main troubles with this approach is limiting the time available for meaningful debate and deliberation of important legislation. Bills rushed through the process often receive minimal scrutiny and consideration, and legislators are often more inclined to vote along party lines rather than carefully evaluating the merits of each bill. Subsequently, this often leads to chaos and confusion as lawmakers scramble to pass as many bills as possible before the session ends. Occasionally, this results in hastily crafted or poorly considered legislation that may have unintended consequences or fail to address the underlying problems they intend to solve.
I am thrilled to see SB 241 passed both chambers and delivered to the Governor. This bill seeks to streamline and improve operations in the Department of Fish and Wildlife by allowing the department to make its conservation easement acquisitions and work with outside parties to complete transactions. The legislation is an important step forward in advancing a three-state collaboration with Virginia and Tennessee to establish the Elk-Habitat Initiative in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The initiative would include 54,000 acres of land in Knox, Bell, and Leslie counties and allow hunting and other recreational activities.
Two bills I sponsored passed out of committee and still linger in the balance in the waning days of the session. SB 161 aims to streamline the appointment process of members to the Kentucky River Authority and sets parameters for locality and professional qualifications. By requiring that the members appointed have a deep understanding of the area and its unique challenges, the bill will help to ensure that the Kentucky River Authority is better suited to oversee the management and protection of the Kentucky River. Ultimately, this benefits the people of the commonwealth by helping protect the health and welfare of the area’s residents and preserve the natural resources of the river.
The other bill, SB 93, refers to a piece of land previously conveyed to the Vanceburg Public School and Seminary and dedicated for educational purposes in 1881-1882. Under the Act, the land cannot be sold without an enabling act of the legislature of Kentucky. However, the Lewis County Board of Education, as the successor in interest to the Vanceburg Public School and Seminary, needs this restriction removed as it plans to sell the property in the best interests of the district. The bill proposes to remove the restriction on the use and sale of the land, allowing the Lewis County Board of Education to sell the property or authorize the use of the property.
One piece of legislation that advanced in the legislature this week dovetails on previously passed measures to reform the state’s ailing juvenile justice system. House Bill (HB) 3 attempts to address the complications within the system, and while I agreed with many provisions in the bill, there were several key issues I had regarding the well-being of the minor, transparency, and effectiveness of the legislative process.
At the onset of the 2023 session, a juvenile justice working group was formed that was ultimately responsible for developing this bill. The group, which I was a member of, met behind closed doors and received little input from policy experts or data-driven presentations. I expressed my frustrations with the process to the working group because this lack of transparency and stakeholder involvement is not how we should operate, especially given the significant impact this legislation will have on young people’s lives.
Another troubling aspect of this bill is the lack of judicial discretion. Judges should have the prudence to consider the unique circumstances of each case, and this bill severely limits that ability. This means that young people caught up in the justice system could be subject to harsh punishments regardless of that child’s specific situation. There was a floor amendment to address these concerns, which required officers to immediately notify the court-designated worker and District Judge when they take a child into custody, which did not pass. The amendment would have provided that young people were not left in detention unnecessarily and given access to the appropriate services and resources.
Furthermore, HB 3 treats minors equally as punitive as adults, even under the presumption of innocence. It is especially problematic when the primary goal is supposed to be rehabilitation, not retribution. Also, the bill allows family members to access the online portal of the minor, potentially leading to conflicts of interest and compromising the fairness of the proceedings where the crime involves a family member.
Despite not taking effect until 2024, HB 3 was rushed through without sufficient time for review and feedback. This lack of transparency and hurried procedure prevented the development of a more effective, concrete piece of legislation that would have better served Kentucky’s youth. If our goal is to rehabilitate youth and reduce recidivism, an approach that is smart about crime rather than wrong should be the goal, especially when it costs millions of taxpayer dollars. While the increase in cases of minors involved in a criminal activity needs to be a priority, House Bill 3 is not a solution. For these reasons, I voted no on this bill. However, it passed the Senate 29-7.
It is a great pleasure to announce the passing of a groundbreaking bill that legalizes medical marijuana in Kentucky. The bill, known as Senate Bill (SB) 47, has received resounding support from both the House and the Senate, making it close to becoming official law in the state.
Thanks to this legislation, patients suffering from qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder, can now receive a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabis medicinally. While smoking cannabis is not allowed under the bill, unprocessed cannabis herbs for vaporization and formulations such as capsules, tinctures, and topical products, are authorized.
Under the bill, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services will be responsible for drafting and implementing regulations to oversee the production and sale of medical marijuana. The goal is to have the medical cannabis program up and running by January 2025, providing much-needed relief for patients across the state.
It is a momentous occasion for Kentucky, and we are proud to have taken this significant step forward in making medical marijuana accessible to those who need it most. We extend our sincerest gratitude to all those who have worked tirelessly to make this bill a reality and look forward to seeing the positive impact it will have on the lives of patients throughout the state. I was proud to work with Sen. Steve West, R-Paris, and cosponsor this legislation. SB 47 passed the Senate 26-11, and later passed the House as well. It now goes to the Governor to be signed into law.
Other bills passed in the Senate this week:
HB 594 bans gambling machines, known as “gray machines” or slot-like “skill games,” which you may have noticed springing up across the state over the last few years. The bill seeks to clarify the difference between illegal gambling machines and legal e-sport video games or coin-operated redemption games. Those who continue operating the machines could face a $25,000 fine payable to the local county government. My preference is to regulate these gambling machines instead of an outright ban. If we could ensure that these machines were in appropriate locations, with proper oversight and taxation like other forms of gambling, it would create a level playing field. However, the bill before us did not provide any such regulation. Therefore, I decided to vote in favor of the measure. It passed the Senate 29-6.
Senate Bill 228 establishes a limit of 5 nanograms of THC per millimeter of blood for drivers impaired by marijuana. The bill aims to save counties money by providing a clear definition of THC impairment to use in court cases. It passed 33-0 with three pass votes. I passed on the legislation due to concerns that the scientific data is still incomplete and individuals have varying tolerance levels for marijuana.
Around 50 bills passed in the final full week of the 2023 session, some with unanimous consent, while others faced significant opposition.
We have reached the essential juncture in the session where bills passed in both chambers have gone through the enrollment committee and been given signatures by the Senate President and Speaker of the House. The slate of legislation with legislative approval now goes to Governor Andy Beshear for further action. Following our business on Thursday, March 16, the Governor has ten days beginning Friday, March 17, excluding Sundays, to act on each bill. This ten-day break, typically referred to as “veto days,” gives the Governor time to review legislation, where he can sign it into law, allow it to become law without his signature, or execute his veto power.
This final stage of the legislative process is critical, as it is up to the Governor to determine which bills he supports and opposes and explain his reasoning if he so chooses. With a supermajority in both chambers, the legislature can override a gubernatorial veto with a supermajority vote. This means that even if the Governor opposes a particular piece of legislation, the legislature can still pass it into law by overriding the vetoes. When members return to Frankfort for the final two days, we will review the bills returned to the legislature. From there, we decide to override the Governor’s action or let the veto stand. It is an exciting and tense time for everyone involved, and we look forward to seeing which bills made it across the finish line and became law.
Currently, HB 551, the sports wagering bill, still lingers in the balance. The legislature could decide to act on it when we return for the final two days. However, at that point, the decisions will ultimately be left to the Governor to sign into law or veto as we will not have the power of veto override.
For more information on the bills passed in the final days of the 2023 session, visit the legislative record online at www.legislature.ky.gov. There, you can view all bills, watch archived coverage of committee meetings, search legislator contact information, learn about the legislative process, and view informational materials.
If I can ever be of assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me. To share feedback on an issue, feel free to email me anytime at Robin.Webb@LRC.KY.GOV or call the General Assembly Message Line at 1-800-372-7181. Kentuckians with hearing loss can use Kentucky Relay by dialing 711.