Kentucky's 2017 General Session Ends

Pivotal pieces of legislation in review. 

For the second time in as many sessions, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin took to podium at the Senate President’s chair to congratulate the legislature for their work. He stated that the seeds planted over the past thirty working days will germinate in the years to come. Bevin’s comments echoed the sentiments of Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, who preceded the Governor in declaring that 2017 was the most productive regular session in modern history.  

The session was undeniably productive, based on quantity of passed legislation alone. Republicans exercised single-party legislative control for the first time in nearly a century, and they released a torrent of bills intended to make the Commonwealth more competitive with Southeastern and Midwestern states in job attraction and retention. However, despite Republican control across the board, the House, Senate and Governor found many places to disagree with each other. Those disagreements resulted in the defeat of several significant agenda items the Kentucky business community championed.  A year-long effort to produce workers’ compensation reforms (HB296) died in the final hours without the Senate ever taking the bill up for a hearing or a vote. Additionally, legislation to require transparency in Attorney General litigation (HB271) met its demise in the House when the Senate added a politically charged provision that would have given Kentucky's governor the sole authority to file amicus briefs, also known as friend-of-the-court briefs, in the name of the Commonwealth. 

Meanwhile, the first 28 days of the 30-day session was extremely successful for Republican Governor Bevin, who was successful in passing dozens upon dozens of bills that were on his agenda, ranging from government agency reorganizations, to subtle policy changes, to significant changes such as making Kentucky a right to work state and eliminating prevailing wage.  Bevin and the legislature’s big wins this session included pushing through a tax incentive package for a major Amazon facility in Northern Kentucky (HB368), curbing drug abuse by outlawing some substances and significantly limiting opioid prescriptions to a three-day supply (HB333), negotiating a re-finance of the KFC Yum! Center arena in downtown Louisville that was on the verge of default (HB330), passing additional economic loan pool money for a potential $1.3 billion business investment in Eastern Kentucky (HB482), killing an effort to separate the County Employee Retirement System from the Kentucky Retirement Systems (SB226), and personally testifying on behalf of charter schools and ending right-to-work.  

While all of these efforts required legislative buy-in and approval, it is the fulfillment of many of the campaign platforms on which the Governor ran on in 2015, and the agenda of the freshman House GOP class for which Bevin tirelessly campaigned with last year.  

But as the Governor’s win’s racked up, the newly minted Republican-led General Assembly flexed some independence of its own. During the veto recess, Governor Bevin vetoed all or parts of four bills – all sponsored by Republicans – similar to what the Governor did a year ago the 2016 session, when the legislature passed a flurry of bills in the last hours of the session, foregoing their ability to override any vetoes. This time, House and Senate leadership wasted no time in overriding all four vetoes nearly unanimously.   

Among those bills that did not pass were the previously mentioned changes to the workers’ compensation laws (HB296). Kentucky’s workers’ compensation program is considered a relatively rich benefit for injured workers, particularly due to the length of benefits received. An effort to save the system over $100 million over the next ten years was stifled in the Senate after law enforcement agencies expressed serious opposition to limiting partial permanent disability claims to 15 years.  

Democrats, while limited in numbers, were able to exploit fissures between the social conservatives and more moderate Republicans to kill a couple of bills this year, and they used their microphones and vote explanation to “filibuster” on several occasions. It was perhaps fitting then that during the 11:00 pm hour on the last night of the session, Republicans and Democrats came together to unanimously pass a budget amendment in an attempt to attract a major economic development opportunity in Eastern Kentucky. 

The legislature also addressed the heroin and drug epidemic that is plaguing the state by passing HB333 in the final hours of the session. The original bill made changes to the prescribing authority for prescription opioids.  The Senate directed a major policy shift when it added language which calls for significant increases in the penalties for trafficking heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and their derivatives. Those increased penalties reverses the policy that Kentucky has been implementing for the past six years to differentiate between drug "peddlers" who sell small amounts to pay for their own habits and drug “traffickers” who perpetuate this epidemic by bringing the drug into the state in large quantities. Under the legislation, trafficking in any amount of heroin would see increased penalties, and it is anticipated that bill will cost the state an additional $30 million annually to Department of Corrections budget for incarcerating more drug users.  

The Governor will have another opportunity at some vetoes over the next ten days, because the legislature will not be back in session to override any of 40 additional measures passed this week.  

The 11:52 pm Sine Die adjournment Thursday night ends the legislative activity until January 2, 2018 – or when the Governor calls an extraordinary (special) session. Smart money is on the latter, with most signals pointing to an early fall special session to address pension and tax reform. Hallway chatter indicates that the Governor’s Office prefers a sooner-rather-than-later call for a special session, but a vote on major tax reform will most certainly be tougher than any vote taken during the regular session. It may require a substantial statewide sales job from the Governor before the new majority in the House and the established majority in the Senate commit to a package that will likely create as many new losers as winners in the tax code. 

Here are a few of the 2017 session highlights:

  • HB 520: The charter school bill allows for publicly funded charters to operate as early as next school year. It passed with a mayoral provision for Lexington and Louisville giving the city’s highest executive authority to designate a charter school or schools. School boards will elect for the creation of a local charter, which may be overridden by the state Board of Education. In the final days of session, a late-night vote on HB 471 provided funding for the charters. 
  • SB1: In tandem with the charter school bill, the legislature was pushing this comprehensive accountability reform for K-12 education. Performance-based assessment reigns supreme, and review of academic standards will occur next school year.  
  • HB 333: creates strong penalties for trafficking any amount of heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and fentanyl derivatives that are destroying Kentucky lives and families. It would also clarify definitions and requirements for the prescription of controlled substances, define prescribing authority within long-term care facilities, and allow the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Office of Inspector General to investigative patterns of prescribing and report irregularities to appropriate authorities. 
  • HB 195: As follow up to a larger felony expungement bill in 2016, this bill allows expungement of juvenile felony records after two years as an adult or from the date of release. Those with offenses or convictions within the two years will be ineligible.  
  • SB 4: This bill establishes a pre-trial peer review panel for medical malpractice in an attempt to deter frivolous lawsuits. A complaint can only bypass the panel and accelerate the matter to the court if agreed upon by both parties.  
  • HB 410: The REAL ID bill allows the option for Kentuckians to obtain a travel ID or enhanced driver’s license for inter-state travel and admittance onto military bases. Though voluntary, it ensures that Kentuckians who choose not to get the travel ID may simply show multiple forms of identification.  
  • SB 153: Addresses performance-based funding for higher-education institutions. The bill has an emergency clause, making it effective immediately.  
  • HB 330: Known as the YUM! Center bill, this bill extends the tax increment financing (TIF) program, resulting in increased contributions from the University of Louisville and Louisville Metro.  
  • HB 1: This right-to-work legislation makes union membership an individual employee choice. This bill was the House’s main priority for the session. Kentucky is now the 27th state to enact right-to-work legislation.  
  • HB 3: Repeal of the Prevailing Wage (Hoover, Koenig) – repeals prevailing wage requirement for public works projects. 
  • SB 3: Legislative Pension Transparency (McDaniel, Alvarado, et. al.) – requires the disclosure of retirement benefits of current and former member of the General Assembly.  
  • SB 5: Abortion Limitations– bans abortions in Kentucky past 20 weeks except for in cases where the procedure is required for survival poses serious risk to survival of the mother. It was passed in the early days of session alongside HB 2, which requires “informed consent,” an ultrasound prior to an abortion, with criminal penalty for violations. 
  • SB 6: Paycheck Protection (Stivers, Alvarado, et. al.) – repeals the employer mandate to withhold union dues from an employee’s salary and sets forth requirements for labor organizations in collecting and applying dues money for political activities. 
  • SB 12: University of Louisville Board of Trustees bill (Stivers) – creates a new Board of Trustees for the University of Louisville and requires Senate confirmation of appointees. SB 207 passed later in the session expanding those requirements to all public universities.   
  • HB 100: A win for bourbon and tourism industries alike, this bill allows for the sale of vintage spirits and the sale of distilled spirits at fairs, festivals, and similar events.  
  • SB 79: Patients can now enter into contracts with their primary care providers for services. Patients who take advantage of the so-called “direct primary care membership agreement” would not forfeit private insurance or Medicaid.  
  • HB 112: Stan Lee’s dog bite bill aroused significant attention after the bill was initially hijacked for the University of Louisville board reorganization bill early in the session. It did have its day on the floor earlier this month and achieved final passage. The bill defines the dog owner, not the landlord, as the responsible party in the case of a dog bite on rental property.  
  • HB 156: This bill establishes the Kentucky Coal Fields Endowment Authority to fund improvement projects in coal severance counties. The bill ensures a $7.5 million installment of coal severance dollars; projects will be awarded based on job creation and economic development potential.  
  • HB 14: Otherwise known as the “Blue Lives Matter” bill, attacks on first responders will now be considered a hate crime. Previous law defines hate crimes as those committed because of a victim’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin. 

872 bills filed
135 bills passed