The General Assembly may enact dozens of new laws each year, but legislative sessions are invariably remembered for just a handful of major issues.
The three most likely to top the list for 2021 include new, but unnecessary, limits on gubernatorial powers; two new, and also unnecessary, initiatives that will cause lasting harm to public education; and a new, and quite necessary, plan to spend hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars.
These and several other high-profile pieces of legislation garnered most of the headlines during the legislature’s 30 meeting days. But there were many other new laws that deserve recognition, too.
A baker’s dozen, for example, will make needed improvements to our criminal justice system. There’s House Bill 7, which will help cities and counties better know if their substance abuse treatment programs are meeting high standards.
House Bill 125 raises the felony theft/fraud limit from $500 to $1,000, the first increase in more than two decades, and House Bill 402 complements that by raising the felony limit for flagrant nonsupport from $1,000 to $2,500. Both should help reduce overcrowding in our jails and prisons.
On the other end of sentencing, House Bill 497 will help many leaving incarceration better reintegrate into society and be more employable.
Several new laws will provide greater protection for children. House Bill 472 does that by extending the statute of limitations for misdemeanor sex offenses involving a minor, and House Bill 254 and Senate Bill 64 toughens penalties for pedophiles who possess child pornography or use the internet to prey on children.
Senate Bill 80 will make it easier to de-certify law enforcement officers who break the law, and Senate Bill 52 closes a legal loophole by establishing new penalties for officers who engage in sexual acts with someone either in their custody or under investigation.
First responders injured in the line of duty will receive more disability benefits under Senate Bill 169, and juvenile court judges will soon have more leeway in deciding whether minors 14 and older should be tried as an adult if the offense they’re charged with involves a firearm.
Changes to Kentucky’s model Open Records law were also a recurring theme this legislative session. House Bill 312, which was enacted over Governor Beshear’s veto, adds new hurdles for requests of government records and also gives the legislature final authority over which of its own records the public can see.
That new law is unnecessary, but Senate Bill 267 and House Bill 273 make more sensible restrictions. The former takes on what is known as “doxing,” which occurs when someone releases personally-identifying information, usually over the internet, in a way designed to intimidate or harass that person. This will now be a Class A misdemeanor, but penalties will be much more severe if the victim is injured or killed. The latter legislation excludes photos and videos from Open Records law if they depict someone’s death, killing, rape or sexual assault.
Under health-related legislation now law, House Bill 140 codifies many of the telehealth changes that were temporarily authorized last year due to COVID-19 restrictions. House Bill 50 provides more parity for mental care covered by health insurance, and Senate Bill 41 removes some insurance obstacles that had blocked access to medicine used to treat drug and alcohol addictions.
Senate Bill 8 adds “conscientiously held beliefs” to longstanding religious and health exemptions for vaccines, but I worry this goes too far and threatens what is one of public health’s greatest success stories.
Two other new laws mirror proposals that the House Democratic Women’s Caucus offered earlier this year to improve maternal and infant health. Senate Bill 84 will help incarcerated pregnant women, including giving them more time with their newborns, and House Bill 212 calls on the Department of Public Health to track maternal and infant fatalities by race, income and geography so we can better spot and then respond to disparities in these areas.
In education, Senate Bill 128 will make it easier for K-12 students to repeat a grade if they fell behind during remote instruction over the past year, and House Bill 178 will keep a student and a teacher on the Kentucky Board of Education as non-voting members while ensuring the board reflects the commonwealth’s demographics.
Senate Bill 270 will help Kentucky State University and Louisville’s Simmons College work together to boost the number of Black educators in our schools, and Senate Bill 10, which became law without Governor Beshear’s signature, will create the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity.
That proposal drew mixed support, in part because some said they believed it was designed more to delay the discussions we need right now on race while many argued against a late change in commission membership that replaced the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’ executive director with someone recommended by prosecutors.
Two other new laws were controversial as well. Senate Bill 65 moves Kentucky in the wrong direction by having us be the only state in the nation removing federal SNAP food benefits from noncustodial parents behind on their child support. This move, coming at a time when the pandemic has had a major impact on family income, could lead to thousands of other children going hungry in those non-custodial homes.
The harm in House Bill 475 is that it will keep Kentucky from having workplace safety standards more stringent than federal rules. Ceding our power in those areas where federal rules may be too vague or limited could put some workers needlessly at risk.
Most of the laws the General Assembly approved this year will take effect toward the end of June, and there were several that became effective the moment they were enacted. A few involving the governor’s state of emergency powers are on hold while the courts decide their future.
Next week, I will wrap up this review of the 2021 Regular Session by taking a closer look at those bills that didn’t get considered this year but should have. Those include medical marijuana, a higher minimum wage and sports wagering. I’ll also review a couple of bad bills that thankfully didn’t make it to the governor’s desk this year.
As always, I encourage you to let me know your thoughts and concerns about any issue affecting Kentucky. My email is angie. email@example.com, and the toll-free message line – staffed each weekday by operators – is 1-800-372-7181. You can also read bills I mentioned and see our votes on the General Assembly’s webpage at legislature.ky.gov.