The Kentucky General Assembly ended its 2017 session late Thursday by approving a final batch of mostly low-profile bills and gubernatorial appointments, although Republicans and Democrats argued over measures to interfere in zoning lawsuits and limit the availability of prescription painkillers.
As the clock struck midnight and the session ended, an amended version of House Bill 281, which would have reduced the power of Attorney General Andy Beshear in a couple of ways, died for a lack of action on the House floor. The Senate passed it earlier in the evening.
One section of the bill would have capped at $20 million the contingency fees that Beshear could agree to pay outside lawyers who represent the state in complex litigation against deep-pocketed plaintiffs. Another would have eliminated his right to represent the state in amicus, or “friend of the court,” briefs filed in other parties’ lawsuits, giving that privilege to the governor instead.
Beshear, a Democrat and frequent opponent of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, called the move a “power grab” and threatened to challenge it in court.
There simply wasn’t time to move on HB 281, House Speaker Jeff Hoover told reporters later.
Most of the session’s hottest issues — including conservative victories on charter schools, abortion restrictions, religious expression and changes to labor and wage law — had been sent to Bevin for his signature long before Thursday.
Republican lawmakers delivered on the 2016 campaign speeches that convinced voters to hand them control of the state House and Senate, said Hoover, R-Jamestown.
“It’s been a very good session for the people of Kentucky,” Hoover said.
“We made some promises in November and we believe we’ve kept those promises on policies that are good for Kentucky’s business climate, for the Kentucky economy, and we feel really good about this session,” he said. “There have been more significant pieces of legislation passed in this short 30-day session than in any session, even the longer sessions in anyone’s memory.”
Among the bills sent to the governor’s desk Thursday:
▪ House Bill 72 will require an appeal bond to be posted if a neighborhood association or other party appeals a rezoning decision from circuit court to the Kentucky Court of Appeals. The sponsor, Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, said he wants to prevent people from thwarting future economic development projects, like a Wal-Mart that had tried to open in West Louisville until residents legally challenged it.
However, Democratic lawmakers said requiring bonds of up to $250,000 would make it impossible for citizens to challenge developers in court.
“Posting a bond isn’t the American way. It limits average people’s access to the courts,” said Rep. Chris Harris, D-Forest Hills. “What we’re doing here, Mr. Speaker, is chipping away at the constitutional rights of our constituents.”
A free conference committee of lawmakers negotiated a new version of HB 72 that would exempt anyone who is challenging the construction or expansion of a landfill. Some constituents of Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, are fighting the expansion of a Scott County landfill in his district.
▪ House Bill 206 will allow high school seniors who maintain a 2.5 or better grade point average to use state lottery funds for apprenticeships in skilled trades, such as electricians and plumbers. This lottery money is currently only available for college costs.
▪ House Bill 333 will limit doctors to writing a three-day prescription for opioid painkillers for patients with acute pain. It allows for higher penalties for trafficking in heroin or fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is similar to morphine but far more powerful.
Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, protested that Kentucky lawmakers should not adopt tighter limits on painkiller prescriptions without hearing testimony from medical authorities. But Senate President Robert Stivers said Kentucky is in the grip of an addiction epidemic, and his own hometown of Manchester is one of the communities awash in pain pills.
▪ House Bill 330 will refinance the debt of the Yum! Center in Louisville through 30-year bonds and add 25 years to the length of a state-approved tax increment financing plan for the arena, taking it to 2054.
Metro Louisville and the University of Louisville, which uses the Yum! Center for men’s basketball games, will be expected to step up and help with the arena’s higher-than-anticipated revenue needs as well, said Scott Brinkman, secretary of the governor’s executive cabinet.
▪ House Bill 277 eliminates anti-nepotism rules for school board members who have aunts, uncles, sons-in-law or daughters-in-law working for their school districts.
Any bills approved by the lawmakers this week can be vetoed by Bevin, with no opportunity for the legislature to override the vetoes.
There was at least one dust-up between the two GOP-controlled chambers.
State Rep. David Meade yanked from further action a resolution that he had sponsored to create a task force to study Kentucky’s adoption and foster care programs. The reason? The Senate had replaced his language with a so-called “Christmas tree,” making it a vehicle loaded down with resolutions calling for legislative studies of everything from nepotism rules in school districts to the attorney general’s office.
Meade, R-Stanford, said the Senate took “good legislation and makes it bad.”
House Bill 296, which would rework the state’s workers’ compensation program, was left hanging in a Senate committee as labor unions lobbied aggressively against it.
The workers comp bill stalled in large part because of a provision that would allow employers to stop paying benefits after 15 years for partial disabilities. The bill would exempt some injuries, such as loss of a limb, hearing, eye or teeth, from the 15-year cap, but it still drew the ire of police and firefighter unions.
In a last-minute measure, House Bill 377, the General Assembly bailed out the coal industry from having to pay rising costs on black lung claims.
The bill’s new language shifts responsibility for paying out existing claims from the Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis Fund to Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance. KEMI would charge coal companies last year’s lower assessments to pay the claims as the black-lung fund is phased out.
Stivers said the bill would have no effect on benefits paid to coal workers. He said the bill is necessary to combat rising costs as the number of coal companies in Kentucky has declined.
“I don’t know of anyone that is in the system that is opposed to this,” Stivers said.