Politics & Government

Lawmakers approve flurry of bills as end of legislative session looms

Members of the Kentucky House and Senate meet in a joint session in the House chambers as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin delivers his budget at the Kentucky State Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Frankfort, Ky.
Members of the Kentucky House and Senate meet in a joint session in the House chambers as Republican Gov. Matt Bevin delivers his budget at the Kentucky State Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Frankfort, Ky. AP

Kentucky legislators approved a flurry of bills Tuesday as this year’s law-making session nears its end.

Tuesday marked the 27th day of the 30-day legislative session. Lawmakers are to meet again Wednesday to consider bills and then are scheduled to wrap up the session March 29 and 30, when they will consider any vetoes issued by Gov. Matt Bevin.

Here are some of the key bills that won approval Tuesday:

Campaign finance

The House narrowly passed Senate Bill 75, a bill that doubles the amount individuals and PACs can donate to a campaign, state executive committee and caucus campaign committee, along with other changes to state campaign finance laws.

Opponents and proponents agreed that dark money in political campaigns has gotten out of control, but each had a different approach for how to address the problem.

Supporters of the bill said the legislation was necessary to increase the number of transparent donations and give regular people a chance to run for office against candidates funded by PACs.

“It evens the playing field,” said Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington. “It makes things more accountable.”

Opponents of the bill argued that raising the limits created the wrong impression and that the general assembly should be attempting to curb dark money donations instead.

“It continues to eviscerate the public trust that people have in government and institutions,” said Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, D-Louisville.

While some conservative Republicans joined with the Democrats to vote against the bill, it wasn’t enough — the bill was sent to the governor with a 52-43 vote.

Charter schools

The Senate Education Committee is to meet at 8 a.m. Wednesday to take up the bill that would allow charter schools statewide.

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said Tuesday night there are enough votes in the committee and the Senate to approve the measure, which the House approved March 3 on a 56-39 vote.

He said the Senate would make changes in House Bill 520 but would not identify them. It’s possible, Stivers said, that there will be a need for a conference committee to try to iron out any differences between the two chambers. House Speaker Jeff Hoover said most of the changes dealt with the language of the bill, but that the bill is substantially the same. Hoover said he hoped to avoid a conference committee.

Kentucky is one of only seven states that do not have charter schools. Such schools would be exempt from state school laws and regulations, except the same health, safety, civil rights and disability rights as public schools.

Proponents of charter schools, including the governor, contend they will improve achievement scores for all students. Opponents claim they would drain public funding from schools.

Coal mine inspections

The Senate gave final approval to House Bill 384, which loosens state rules for underground coal mine inspections. The vote was 28-8.

It would replace up to three of the four required annual underground mine inspections with mine safety analysis visits and reduce the minimum number of annual full electrical inspections from two to one.

Unlike a regular inspection, which involves checking a mine and its equipment for safety violations, a safety analysis involves an inspector spending a day with at least one miner. The bill now goes to Gov. Matt Bevin for his signature or veto.

Zoning appeals

The Senate approved House Bill 72, which would make it harder for citizen groups to appeal zoning changes, but the measure must go back to the House to consider changes made by the Senate.

The Senate first approved the bill on an 18-16 vote but later had to reconsider the measure because it has an emergency clause, which means at least 20 votes are needed for passage. The second vote was 21-14. Bills with emergency clauses take effect as soon as they are signed by the governor.

HB 72 would require those appealing a circuit court zoning decision to post a large bond before appealing to the Court of Appeals.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Miller, R-Louisville, said the measure is designed to curb frivolous appeals. Opponents, such as the liberal-leaning Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, contend the bill is designed to discourage property owners and neighborhood groups from challenging commercial or residential developments .

Civics testing

The House approved Senate Bill 159, which would require Kentucky high school students to pass a version of the civics test that the U.S. government gives to immigrants when they apply to become citizens.

Some lawmakers, including Democratic Reps. Steve Riggs and Kelly Flood, were wary of the bill because it would require students to pass the test to graduate. Students could take the test more than once if they fail it. Supporters said the bill would ensure students learned basic civics.

The House approved the bill 79-15 and sent it back to the Senate with an amendment that would exempt students who recently passed the test to become U.S. citizens.

Higher education funding

The House gave final passage to Senate Bill 153, which would require public universities and colleges to compete for state funding. It now goes to Bevin for his signature or veto.

The bill would allocate funding based on a university’s performance in three categories: 35 percent based on student success, including overall graduation rates and how many students receive degrees in science, technology, engineering and math; 35 percent for course completion, measured by each university’s share of total student credit hours earned in Kentucky; and 30 percent for operations, based on the university’s square footage dedicated to student learning, spending on instruction and full-time students.

The funding model was created by a higher education task force and was agreed to by the presidents of eight of Kentucky’s higher education institutions.

Republicans said the bill wasn’t perfect but that the new funding model would ultimately be good for Kentucky.

“They worked all year to come up with a solution … that everyone could buy into,” said Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Bowling Green.

Several Democrats still opposed the bill, arguing that it could create disparities in funding.

“My concern is that there is going to be unintended consequences where we have winners and losers,” said Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook.

The bill was approved 65-29.

Louisville metro government

The House also approved a bill that opponents said meddles in the affairs of Louisville’s metro government.

Senate Bill 222 determines who can fill vacancies in Louisville’s city government, creates a line of succession to the mayor and gives subpoena power to certain Metro Government committees, among other things.

Several Democrats said the bill amounts to micromanagement of Louisville by lawmakers in Frankfort.

“My people did not send me up here to legislate for Louisville,” said Rep. James Kay, D-Versailles.

Republicans said the bill, which has been modified, is now supported by members of the Metro Council and is not opposed by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.

“What you heard about this bill was shameless rhetoric … that wants to perpetuate the rumor of the war on Louisville,” said Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville.

Neighborhood schools

A controversial proposal that would allow students to attend the school closest to their home won’t get further consideration in this year’s legislation session, Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Dan Seum said in a floor speech Tuesday.

Seum said charter school legislation is more important and that time has run out to consider House Bill 151, which would require school districts to let children go to the school nearest their home.

The bill passed the House 59-37 last month. Democrats argued that the bill would segregate schools in Louisville.

Seum said the Senate Education Committee will hold a meeting this summer in Jefferson County on the issue.