Budget, charter schools and abortion: What to watch for as Ky. legislature convenes
Published 10:30 am Wednesday, January 3, 2024
By: McKenna Horsley, Kentucky Lantern
Lawmakers gathered in Frankfort Tuesday to begin work on a state budget, in a year when they will face voters at the polls.
The 60-day session will see the Republican-led General Assembly consider constitutional amendments to put on the November ballot, as well as pass a two-year state spending plan. It will also be the first session of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s second term in office.
Email newsletter signup
Beshear will deliver the State of the Commonwealth Address to the General Assembly at 7/6 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 3. The speech will be broadcast on KET and KET.org/Live.
All 100 seats in the House of Representatives and half the Senate will be up for election this year, meaning some lawmakers will have one last chance to pass legislation. Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer and Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield are among lawmakers who have announced plans to not seek reelection in 2024.
Here are a few things to watch for during the next legislative session.
Beshear, a Democrat who won reelection in November, released his budget Dec. 18 in a televised address ahead of the legislative session. It was an unusual move to seemingly prevent another unusual move that happened during the 2022 legislative session. Then, House Republicans filed their own budget bill ahead of the governor’s budget address.
Beshear is proposing a $136.6 billion spending plan for the next two years. Priorities include investments in public education, including an 11% raise for teachers and other school employees; $500 million for water and wastewater infrastructure, and fully funding the state’s expanded Medicaid program.
However, it’s unclear what, if any, of the Democrat’s proposals will make it through the General Assembly, which has veto-proof Republican supermajorities. House Republicans will file their own budget bill when lawmakers return to Frankfort.
Republicans approved income tax cuts in 2022 and 2023 as part of their plan to gradually eliminate Kentucky’s income tax. However, despite the record surplus, it was announced in August that state tax revenues failed to meet a benchmark set by the legislature in order to consider further income tax cuts in the 2024 session.
At the time, Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate budget committee, told the Lantern that Kentuckians can expect “spending restraint” that would allow for the legislature to meet the fiscal trigger in the future and cut the income tax rate again. “We do not need to spend every dollar that rolls into Frankfort,” McDaniel said. “The restraint that we will need to show will pay off when we’re able to further reduce income taxes.”
Beshear’s proposed budget doesn’t use any of the record $3.7 billion balance in the Budget Reserve Trust Fund, also known as the “rainy day” fund. A coalition of about 40 groups is calling on the state to use recurring revenue in the rainy day fund to pay for neglected needs in education, infrastructure and more.
Beshear told reporters: “If the General Assembly decides though, based on actuarial studies, that they want to invest some of that money, depending on what they suggest I can be supportive of that. It has plenty of money for any unforeseen circumstance that we would face.”
Charter schools, etc.
In recent years, Republican-sponsored laws aimed at funding charter schools and creating tax credits to pay for private school tuition have been struck down in court based on Kentucky’s Constitution, so it’s expected the General Assembly will pursue a “school choice” constitutional amendment during the next session.
Recently, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd struck down a 2022 law creating a funding mechanism for charter schools in Kentucky. He wrote that charter schools are “private entities” that do not meet the Kentucky Constitution’s definition of “public schools” or “common schools.” In December 2022, the Kentucky Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Kentucky law creating a generous tax credit to help families pay for tuition at private schools.
After a Louisville Forum luncheon in December, House Republican Whip Jason Nemes told a Kentucky Lantern reporter that the legislature will “likely put that on the ballot next year for constitutional amendment,” but was unsure if there would be any specific statutory changes. Thayer, the Senate Republican floor leader, also said in a recent interview that a constitutional amendment to allow “school choice” would be among his priorities for the next session.
In the 2023 governor’s race, criticism of Kentucky’s near-total abortion ban was renewed after Beshear’s campaign released ads pushing back at Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s support of the laws. Cameron responded by saying that he would sign exceptions if the General Assembly passed such laws and he were elected.
In his first press conference after the election, Beshear called on the legislature to pass exceptions to the law in cases of rape and incest. Also, in 2022, Kentucky voters rejected an amendment that would have declared there is no right to an abortion in the state Constitution.
On election night, Nemes, who filed a bill in 2023 creating exceptions that did not advance, told the Lantern the matter deserves consideration.
“I think our people believe in the exemptions,” Nemes said. “And at some point, we’re representatives of the people, and we have to do what their demands are.”
A group of Louisville Republicans is backing an omnibus bill they call the Safer Kentucky Act. The draft bill has undergone several changes since they first announced their plans in September and now includes a three strikes law for violent felonies, regulating bail fund organizations, provisions to prevent “street camping,” and strengthening privileges for business employees and owners to “use a reasonable amount of force necessary” to protect themselves or prevent a person detained for theft from escaping.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jared Bauman, said during an Interim Joint Judiciary Committee meeting in December that constituents across Kentucky are frustrated that “the criminal element has become an all too normal part of our world today.”
Some provisions in the original proposal have been removed, such as establishing a Kentucky State Police post in Jefferson County and creating a statewide wiretapping law for police officers. The wiretapping proposal may become separate legislation.
A full draft of the bill is available on the meeting materials section of the committee’s page on the Legislative Research Commission’s website.
Removing firearms from those at risk of doing harm
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield, who has been a member of the Senate for over a decade, is working on legislation that would establish crisis aversion and rights retention orders, also known as CARR. In an Interim Joint Judiciary Committee meeting, Westerfield noted the legislation is still being drafted and welcomed input from his colleagues and stakeholders.
The proposal seeks to temporarily remove firearms from Kentuckians at risk of harming themselves or others. Several lawmakers voiced concerns about the bill, including Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge.
Maddox voiced her “long standing opposition to this proposal” and concerns that it has the potential to violate constitutional rights such as due process and protection against government search and seizure. In response, Westerfield said he was not proposing a “search” or “ransacking of a home.”
After the meeting, Maddox said on X, formerly Twitter, that House leadership told the National Rifle Association Westerfield’s proposal “will not advance this Session.”