The work of state lawmakers will soon be completed, but the analysis of their actions has already begun, both on the bills they have passed and the legislation that has languished.
Veto overrides will comprise a significant part of the final two days of the General Assembly session, including Gov. Andy Beshear’s line-item vetoes of the state budget.
“This budget isn’t the best it can be,” Beshear said on Monday. “While we make some great investments in our future, the budget certainly doesn’t meet the moment when it comes to K through 12 education.”
The governor criticized the Republican spending plan for failing to fund universal pre-kindergarten, offering what he says is an insufficient increase in per-pupil funding for schools, falling short on transportation funding, and omitting teachers from a proposed state employee pay raise.
Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, says educators in the commonwealth have not seen a pay increase since 2010, which he contends is making it increasingly difficult for the state to attract and retain teachers.
“Other states are looking at big raises,” says Bailey. “Mississippi just passed a 10 percent teacher raise. Alabama is looking at something that would range even higher than that.”
Budget chairs in the legislature argue that teacher pay should be decided at the district level, not mandated by Frankfort. They say their spending plan delivers enough money to school districts to enable local leaders to determine what pay raises are most appropriate for their teachers and school staff.
Julia Bright Crigler, founder of Bright Strategies LLC, says it’s about giving local districts more flexibility in how they spend their money.
“Teacher raises not happening wouldn’t be because of this budget,” says Crigler. “It’s if those school systems chose to use that money that way.”
Lawmakers remain divided on pre-kindergarten, with Republicans questioning the need for it and Democrats saying it’s an important part of early childhood development.
Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Kate Shanks says further debate about pre-K is needed to see how it could best mesh with child care services still reeling from COVID pandemic shutdowns.
“We need to make sure that this particular child care ecosystem, which is very fragile right now, is not disrupted too much,” says Shanks. “We need to make sure that the model in place utilizes all different ways of delivering those services: In-home child care, child care centers… cooperative programs, in-workplace programs.”
A bipartisan measure that Gov. Beshear signed in to law will create an Employee Child Care Assistance Partnership to encourage businesses to offer child care options as a benefit to their workers. House Bill 499 appropriates $15 million in the next fiscal year to the effort.
Kentucky Youth Advocates Executive Director Terry Brooks says he’s pleased with state budget support for social workers, behavioral and mental health services for children, and family resource and youth services centers. He says that given GOP leadership opposition to pre-K, lawmakers should focus future legislation on reshaping early childhood services.
“What I hope that does is spur all of us to come together with the business community, with frontline child care folks, with K-12 educators and think about how we can emulate some other states that have really reinvented early childhood into much more of a holistic, focused system.”
Public Assistance and Unemployment
Lawmakers also enacted changes to welfare and unemployment benefits for Kentuckians. House Bill 7 includes a public engagement requirement for able-bodied adults on Medicaid who have no dependents, changes the reporting requirements for people on benefits, and imposes tougher sanctions against those committing welfare fraud.
House Bill 4 shortens the period that unemployed individuals would be eligible for benefits, cuts off payments to people who decline an offer of work under certain conditions, and provides incentives for job training and certifications.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle voiced concerns about how these measures would impact struggling families, especially those living in economically challenged areas like eastern Kentucky. Bailey says 21 Republicans across both chambers voted against the unemployment limits contained in HB 4. He describes the cutbacks to unemployment payments as “crushing” and “cruel.”
“[Unemployment assistance] keeps the families afloat, circulates through the economy, supports local businesses, and helps them find a job that actually meets their skills and capacities and their family budget as opposed to pushing them into the next job that may pay only half of what their previous job did,” says Bailey,
Although HB 4 was a legislative priority for the Kentucky Chamber, Shanks says her membership is attuned to the challenges facing business owners and workers in Appalachian communities and how they could benefit from investments in infrastructure, broadband internet, and child care services.
“We’re going to be looking at eastern Kentucky and the region and what we can be doing policy-wise, what we can be doing with our programs to support re-employment in that region and to support economic development,” says Shanks.
The Fate of Local Control
This session included several efforts by lawmakers to both give more control to local decision-makers and to keep some control firmly in Frankfort.
For example, the final version of Senate Bill 1 gives school superintendents authority over principal hiring, yet also includes a list of 24 historic American documents and speeches that students would be required to learn. In other bills, lawmakers required schools to have armed safety officers, include public comment periods at school board meetings, and ban transgender athletes from playing girls’ sports.
Louisville Democrats also decried how SB 1 singles out the Jefferson County Board of Education by setting limits on how often it can meet. Crigler says it’s only natural for lawmakers to take interest in the state’s largest school district given the problems it has faced over the years.
“There’s administrative issues certainly, there’s inequalities in how education is being carried out there, and there’s a lot disparities,” says Crigler. “I think the legislature is doing the right thing in taking a second look and maybe taking a little more of a hands-on approach.”
As a former school administrator, Brooks acknowledges that there are issues in the Jefferson County schools that have been ignored for decades. But he says the lawmakers should focus on current conditions under JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio, not historical ones. Brooks says SB1 and other legislative actions have left him wondering if the GOP still embraces the philosophy of local control as thoroughly as it once did.
“Is that still a north star, or have [Republicans] become the big government party where Frankfort knows best?” says Brooks.
Beyond the education arena, some Jefferson County lawmakers have decried what they see as a larger legislative “war on Louisville.” They point to House Bill 314 which would allow residents of unincorporated areas of Jefferson County to vote to create a new city outside of Metro Louisville.
Bailey says that’s an effort to dismantle the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County governments that residents there approved in 2002.
“It’s our strongest economic engine and if we affect the way that it’s able to operate… it will trickle down to potentially harm the entire state,” says Bailey.
Work Left Unfinished
The fate of bills on sports wagering, unregulated “gray” slot games, and medical marijuana remain uncertain in the closing days of the session. Shanks says Chamber members are also watching bills on addiction treatment and giving certain convicted felons access to KEES scholarships. She applauds lawmakers for passing a plan to gradually lower the state income tax to zero and she’s looking for even more tax changes in the future.
“There will be more conversations about tax reform,” says Shanks. “There’s some business taxes we’d like to look at, the limited liability entity tax.”
Brooks says he’s curious to know what happened to efforts to address racial inequity in the commonwealth. He says he was encouraged by meetings of the new Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity chaired by Sen. David Givens (R-Greensburg) and Rep. Samara Heavrin (R-Greensburg). But he says those conversations during the interim last year resulted in no legislation this year.
“The Commission on Race needs to be praised,” says Brooks. “My question is what happened to their good work? What happened to their great recommendations?”