Politics & Government

Tax teacher pensions? Target gang members? Nine bills to watch Friday in Frankfort.

Members of the Kentucky House and Senate meet in a joint session in the House chambers 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 at the Kentucky State Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Frankfort, Ky. AP

When Kentucky lawmakers return to Frankfort on Friday, they might give tax relief to retired teachers on pensions, they might make it easier to accuse young men of gang membership and send them to prison, and they might reduce the financial incentive for homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs.

Or they might not.

There are dozens of bills pending in the state House and Senate. Although the legislature’s top priority is dealing with Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of the budget and revenue bills — without which state government won’t have the money to operate for the next two years — lawmakers also expect to address some of the other items still sitting on their desks before they adjourn sine die, either Friday or Saturday.

Here are nine bills to watch Friday:

▪  House Bill 6 would provide $60 million in tax breaks for banks and insurance companies that invest in eligible businesses throughout the state’s rural areas.

Sponsors say the bill is meant to create jobs, while critics note that the bill does not require proof that those cashing in on the tax break actually created any jobs. And an investment firm pushing Kentucky lawmakers to approve the bill — Louisiana-based Advantage Capital Partners — has a history of persuading lawmakers in other states and then making millions from tax breaks that often don’t create the promised jobs.

HB 6 awaits action on the Senate floor.

▪  House Bill 9 would create detailed new rules for how sexual harassment complaints should be reported among staff at the Legislative Research Commission. And it would establish sexual harassment as a punishable ethics offense for lawmakers.

The bill was filed in response to a sexual harassment scandal that toppled then-House Speaker Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, last November, and involved three other Republican House members, leading to two whistle-blower lawsuits. The lawmakers entered into a confidential $110,000 sexual harassment settlement last year with a woman who worked for the LRC.

HB 9 was assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee on March 12 but has not been called for a vote, so its odds in the final day or two of the session appear slim.

▪  House Bill 169 would stiffen criminal penalties for alleged gang membership in Kentucky by expanding the definition of participation in gang activities and creating new felonies for people charged with gang recruiting.

In an analysis of the bill, legislative staff said they could not estimate how many more people would go to prison if the bill became law or how much longer those people would serve behind bars. They did estimate the cost to the Kentucky Department of Corrections as “moderate,” or less than $1 million a year.

“The number of offenders subject to this legislation will vary greatly due to prosecutorial discretion, plea agreements offenders may take to avoid enhanced penalties and cases subject to federal prosecution,” the legislative staff wrote.

Civil-rights activists and religious leaders have opposed the bill, warning that it would disproportionally sweep up young men from minority neighborhoods. Lawmakers have agreed to some changes. For example, originally, the bill defined a gang as three people who share a name, identifying hand signal, colors, symbols, geographic location or leader. A revised version requires a group to have two of those characteristics before being labeled a gang.

“Let me be very clear that House Bill 169 does not cast a broad net,” the bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said in March. “It is incredibly refined.”

HB 169 awaits action on the Senate floor.

▪  House Bill 227 would dramatically roll back the reimbursements paid to homeowners with solar panels on their roofs when they sell surplus energy to utility companies, a practice known as “net metering.”

HB 227 has proven to be one of the most controversial bills this session. Utility companies are fiercely lobbying for it; environmentalists and solar energy companies are aggressively pushing back. It squeaked through the House only after its sponsor, state Rep. Jim Gooch, R-Providence, arranged for three new members to be added to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, where the bill had been stuck in limbo.

Lawmakers behind the bill keep making changes along the way — the latest version directs the state Public Service Commission to play a role in setting reimbursement rates — but critics say the bill still would discourage Kentucky homeowners from generating their own solar power.

HB 227 awaits action on the Senate floor.

▪  House Bill 428 would require emergency workers to detain people whom they treat for overdosing on heroin or other opioids and take them to a hospital so their drug abuse could be assessed. The bill is limited to the most populous urban areas, such as Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky. People usually would have to be released within 72 hours.

The sponsor, state Rep. Kimberly Poore Moser, R-Taylor Mill, told her colleagues that her bill is a response to the pleas of emergency workers who are called to resuscitate the same addicts for multiple overdoses during the same shift. Sometimes revived addicts “are able to just get up and walk away and refuse treatment,” even though they are still under the influence of drugs, Moser said in March.

HB 428 was assigned to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on March 21. It has received the first of three readings on the Senate floor that are necessary for passage, but unless senators act quickly Friday to vote it out of committee, the bill’s chances seem iffy.

▪  Senate Bill 4 is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would move the elections for governor, attorney general and other constitutional officers in Kentucky to presidential election years, starting in 2024. Everyone elected in 2019 would get a five-year term.

State-level Republican politicians savor the idea of appearing down-ticket from GOP presidential nominees because Kentucky has emerged as a staunchly red state in national elections. State-level Democratic politicians dislike the idea for the same reason. There also is the matter of cost: A fiscal note attached to the bill estimated a $13.5 million savings for local governments in 2023 by not having to hold primary and general elections for statewide office.

SB 4 awaits action on the House floor.

▪  Senate Bill 20 would set a broad range of restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors, hospitals and nursing homes. Among the hurdles: Plaintiffs would have to submit an “affidavit of merit” from an “expert witness” vouching for each claim before their suit could begin; plaintiffs’ attorneys would have their fees capped; and costs would be imposed for the production of patients’ medical records.

SB 20 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee on March 9 and has seen no action since, making it a long shot this year.

▪  Senate Bill 197 — technically, a bill about water well drillers — had new language slipped into it by the House late on April 2. The revised bill would restore a health insurance subsidy for retired teachers’ dependents, and it would provide that pensions in Kentucky only would be taxed over the current level of $41,110. In the revenue bill that lawmakers passed (and Bevin vetoed), any pension larger than $31,110 would be taxed. Among the groups that change angered in Kentucky was teachers, whose average pension is $37,000.

SB 197 has now returned to the Senate, which must decide whether to accept the changes the House made.

▪  Senate Bill 231 would write the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship program into state law, making it permanent after Bevin established it by executive order two years ago.

State officials say the scholarship program is meant to help more Kentuckians earn technical workforce training certificates in five industries with worker shortages: health care, advanced manufacturing, transportation/logistics, business services/IT, and construction. It has been used by fewer than 1,500 students, but officials say they expect an increase thanks to a new requirement that able-bodied Medicaid recipients either get jobs or go to school if they want to keep their health insurance.

The program would get $15.9 million over the next two years in addition to keeping about $13 million in unused funds from the last two years.

SB 231 awaits action on the House floor.

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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