Kentucky State Capitol

The Kentucky General Assembly reconvened late Tuesday afternoon, with nearly two months remaining in this year’s short legislative session. While the legislature sprinted through seven major bills passed within their first five days in January, most expect both chambers to slow down to a more typical pace this month.

While the pace of legislation slows, the Republican Party’s domination of both chambers will ensure their ability to pass a long wish list of policy proposals that have remained stymied for a decade or more. Case in point: The only drama remaining concerning legislation to finally allow charter schools in Kentucky is not whether this will pass, but what specific form it will take.

Here is an overview of some of the major issues and legislation expected to come up in the second half of the session that ends March 30.

Public Education

Kentucky is one of only seven states that do not allow charter schools, but this is certain to change before the end of the legislative session. The reason this top Republican priority was not passed immediately in the first week is the same reason it likely will take additional weeks to pass: the complexity of the issue and the many different forms that charter schools could take in the state.

For example, will legislation permit local school districts to create or accept charter schools, or will the state allow charter schools everywhere, whether the local school districts wants them or not? Will charter schools begin with a pilot program in urban areas like Louisville and Lexington? Will local school districts be forced to fund charter schools? Will the state or local school districts hold new charter schools accountable? Even with universal support for charter schools among Republican legislators, it will take weeks of debate and compromise before these answers are hammered out in a bill that can pass both chambers.

Senate Bill 1 is a multi-faceted bill that would bring sweeping changes to how public schools are held accountable, from students’ standardized testing to teacher evaluations.

Republican legislators appear likely to give Gov. Matt Bevin a considerable increase in power over higher education in Kentucky through Senate President Robert Stivers’ SB 107. Under the bill — said to be a companion to earlier legislation abolishing and recreating the University of Louisville board of trustees — the governor can remove any member or members from a university board if he or she deems that the body cannot “reach consensus” toward achieving the school’s mission. UofL’s accrediting agency — which placed the university on a 12-month probation due to Bevin’s “undue political influence” last year — will be watching this one closely.

Medical Review Panels

Passed many times through the Republican-controlled Senate, only to be stymied in the Democratic House, this appears to be the year that tort reform legislation creating medical review panels cannot be stopped. Under Senate Bill 4, a panel of health care providers would review each medical malpractice claim and attach their opinion to the case before it goes to court. Republicans claim this legislation will discourage frivolous lawsuits and lower the cost of health care.

Criminal Justice Reform

Legislation is expected to incorporate the recommendations of the governor’s Criminal Justice Assessment Policy Council, which is intended to continue the General Assembly’s trend in recent years of passing criminal justice reform to reduce the number of incarcerated nonviolent offenders and save money. The recommendations included reducing felonies for theft and delinquent child support payments by raising the felony threshold amounts for each, as well as allowing some charged with crimes to be released before trial if they are too poor to afford bail.

REAL ID

Kentuckians wanting to board a plane next year without having to bring along a passport are once again hoping the legislature passes the federally required REAL ID bill this session — and that Gov. Bevin does not veto it this time. The decade-old federal standards require that driver’s licenses and ID cards be issued by the state transportation cabinet instead of individual county clerks, but conservative groups convinced Bevin to veto the legislation in 2016.

If these reforms — also opposed by the ACLU — do not become law this session, military bases and nuclear facilities will stop accepting Kentucky-issued identification for entry by this summer, and such identification will not be sufficient to board a domestic flight by next January.

Gun Control

Senate Bill 7, filed by Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, would no longer require someone to obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon in Kentucky; such licenses currently are issued after taking a short training course.

On the other side of the ideological divide, House Bill 101, filed by Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, would allow local governments to create their own gun control legislation, which currently is prohibited by state law. Despite the dramatic increase in shootings and gun homicides in Louisville this year — and the support of Mayor Greg Fischer and local law enforcement — Republicans are likely to easily shoot down Owens’ bill.

Arena TIF

At the request of Louisville Arena Authority chairman Scott Cox, legislators are expected to extend the life of the KFC Yum! Center’s tax increment financing district by 10 years. The effort was initiated by Cox due to the looming increase in debt payments for the arena and appears to have the support of Bevin, provided that UofL readjusts its favorable lease with the arena and the city of Louisville increases its minimum annual payments to the authority — both of which remain uncertain.

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]


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