Politics & Government

Flexing political muscle, GOP to finalize abortion and labor bills Saturday

Union workers protest in hallways of Capitol Annex

Governor Matt Bevin encounters protesting union workers outside committee room hearings on a so-called "right to work" bill on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.
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Governor Matt Bevin encounters protesting union workers outside committee room hearings on a so-called "right to work" bill on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Kentucky Republicans plan to flex their new-found political muscle Saturday, just one week into the 2017 legislative session, as they hold a rare weekend meeting to finalize controversial bills that would restrict abortions and labor unions.

The Republican-controlled House and Senate hope to send a package of conservative bills to Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for him to sign into law later in the day.

The bills contain emergency clauses, which means they would take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature rather than 90 days after the legislature adjourns its 30-workday session in late March.

Bevin’s office has not said whether he will sign bills on Saturday. Labor unions and the Kentucky Democratic Party are organizing protests at the Capitol in the morning, saying the session so far has attacked Kentucky’s women and blue-collar workers rather than addressing the state’s economic problems, as Republicans promised.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, acknowledged Friday that GOP leaders have been quietly planning “a productive first week” of the legislative session since before the Nov. 8 election, when the GOP won control of the state House for the first time since 1921.

The pace of law-making has been “swift,” but people are familiar with the longtime GOP priorities that are being addressed this week, Stivers said.

Lawmakers will adjourn Saturday and then return to Frankfort in February to meet for no more than 25 days.

In the House, Democratic lawmakers complained Friday that the GOP majority is rushing important bills into law with little chance for public dialogue.

Time for questions and debate has been limited in overcrowded committee hearings and on the chamber floors, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said. Bills have been hastily rewritten in back rooms just before floor votes, leaving rank-and-file lawmakers uncertain as to the new language, Adkins said.

“The objection is about the speed of this process,” Adkins said in a floor speech. “I would only ask that we make sure we’re not making any mistakes because we rushed this process.”

Stivers said lawmakers can address any problems that might pop up in this week’s legislation when they return in February.

Despite the Democrats’ objections, Senate and House committees met Friday to approve the bills they had received from the opposite chamber.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee started the action with its 8-to-3 approval of House Bill 1, which would let workers avoid paying union dues even if they get the benefits of a union-negotiated workplace contract.

Soon after, the Senate budget committee voted 10 to 3 for House Bill 3, which would repeal the prevailing wage, a minimum salary paid to construction workers on local government projects of more than $250,000. The salary varies depending on the job and local cost of living. The base rate for an electrician in Woodford County, for example, is $30.01 an hour, while a bricklayer in Clay County must be paid at least $20.35 an hour.

Construction workers hired outside of the prevailing wage system can expect to get far less than those rates, perhaps half as much, said Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO.

“It’s basically whatever a private contractor can get away with paying, as low as he can go,” Londrigan said in an interview Friday. “And without prevailing wage, you’re going to see worker pay depressed across the state, both for public and private construction projects. A lot of our skilled workers are going to leave Kentucky or do something else for a living because they can’t afford to stay in construction here and support a family.”

Gov. Matt Bevin discussed a proposed ban on mandatory union dues with a group of angry union workers in a hallway of the Kentucky Capitol Annex on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

Market competition should decide what labor is worth, not the government, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Adam Koenig, told the Senate budget committee. The prevailing wage law artificially boosts construction costs for school districts, cities and counties by requiring them to pay more money to workers, said Koenig, R-Erlanger.

“This bill has been filed for one reason, and that is to save taxpayer dollars,” Koenig said.

Next, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee voted 8 to 2 for House Bill 2, which would require doctors to conduct an ultrasound on women seeking abortion, though women could opt out of viewing the results by signing a form.

Later in the day, a series of House committees approved all but one of the Senate’s priority bills:

▪  Senate Bill 3, which would allow legislators’ state pensions to be disclosed under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

▪  Senate Bill 5, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

▪  Senate Bill 6, which would require workers to “opt in” to having union dues withheld from their paychecks. It also would require unions to separately solicit money for its political activities.

▪  Senate Bill 12, which would create a new U of L governing board comprised of 10 trustees subject to Senate confirmation, selected by the governor from a larger pool of 30 people recommended by the Council on Postsecondary Education.

The House sidelined Senate Bill 4, which would establish medical review panels, comprised of doctors, to issue non-binding opinions on medical neglect or malpractice claims before lawsuits could be filed. Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, whose House committee will hear SB 4, said its Friday hearing was dedicated to a proposed abortion ban, leaving no time to discuss the review panels.