Last Friday, as the General Assembly wrapped up its final full week of meeting this year, the legislative calendar made one thing clear: Time is drawing short to resolve a long list of issues.
There are just six working days remaining, and they’re split over the next several weeks. As my colleagues and I ready for Frankfort’s version of March Madness, there is still hope that we’ll end this session with more than one shining moment.
The accomplishments so far are decidedly mixed. One dark cloud was the slate of bills rushed through in January that would severely limit our governor’s ability to handle long-term emergencies like COVID-19. Fortunately, the courts are continuing to block their implementation.
A brighter measure is a bipartisan law approved last month to create a stronger legal foundation for the slot-like historical horse racing machines. While I support this, we still need to work with the horse industry to provide the state a greater share of this multi-billion dollar cash cow. That will be a top priority in 2022.
History will almost certainly recall this year’s legislative session primarily because of these two issues, but there are dozens more that, in ways good and bad, can make a profound difference in the lives of many Kentuckians if they become law.
Quite a few of the more positive ones are found in proposed changes to the criminal justice system. There were more than a half-dozen to clear the House or its Judiciary committee this past week with broad, bipartisan support.
Five to make it through the House would do such things as remove some of the barriers many released from prison face as they reintegrate into society; help pregnant women who are incarcerated; crackdown on child pornographers; extend the statute of limitations for misdemeanor sex crimes against children; and exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
Two others to clear the House Judiciary Committee are expected to join this list soon. One would give juvenile court judges more discretion in deciding if defendants 14 and older should be tried as an adult, and the other would close a loophole to make sure law enforcement officials are charged with a crime if they have sexual contact with someone either in their custody or who is being investigated.
Two other good bills making it through the House this past week would help those who have been or still are unemployed. One would open up career centers in those areas of the state where unemployment is five percent or greater.
Its companion bill — which is now on its way to the governor’s desk — will stop the penalization of those who received excess unemployment insurance payments through no fault of their own and were at risk of having to repay that additional money.
These are needed steps for the beleaguered unemployment insurance system, but I wish they went much further. Two of my colleagues, for example, have filed legislation that would make even more improvements. One proposal would reduce the need for federal borrowing to cover benefits in future recessions and another would extend eligibility to those who have to leave their job due to domestic violence or for similar reasons.
Although my colleagues’ bills have yet to be heard, I was proud to see the House approve three others from our caucus this past week. One would have Kentucky officially recognize a mental health flag, which would raise awareness and visibility of programs addressing mental health. A second would formally re-organize the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, and the third would have hospitals and others involved in birthing services provide mothers information on maternal depression.
Two other bills I was happy to support this past week would set aside nearly $300 million for two important projects. Most of the money would go toward significantly expanding broadband internet to underserved areas of Kentucky, and the remainder would be placed in the rural hospital revolving loan fund created last year to help these facilities keep their doors open.
In education matters, the House voted for legislation this past week to have all school districts return to at least partial in-person instruction by the end of this month, something many are already doing.
Nearly all of these bills are still at least a step away from being sent to the governor, and there is also the need to approve a one-year state budget in the time we have left. It is too soon to say what will pass, but the one guarantee is that the hours will be long during these six working days.
As always, I would like to hear your thoughts or concerns with any legislation being considered. You can email me at Angie.Hatton@ lrc.ky.gov, while the toll-free message line for legislators is 1-800-372-7181. Bills and votes can be found on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature. ky.gov.