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This Week at the State Capitol Mar. 13-17

In News, State by OC Monitor Staff

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Lawmakers often compare the chambers of the House or Senate to an arena. They sometimes quote Theodore Roosevelt’s famous passage about faces “marred by dust and sweat.”

If ever a week in the General Assembly proved those sentiments correct, it was the one that wrapped up late Thursday night when the legislature gaveled out for a 10-day veto recess.

The last full week of the 2023 Regular Session was ablaze with electric oratory and raw debates as lawmakers hot-footed from committee to caucus to chamber – all in a four-day sprint to get bills to the governor’s desk.

Throughout the late nights and early mornings, legislators sparred over education, gender identity, parental rights, firearms, marijuana, gambling and coal. They pondered the relationship between state and federal government. They recited scripture from both sides of the political aisle.

By midnight Thursday, more than 120 bills had received final passage and were sent to the governor, including a full slate of bills on public schools.

The most prominent and contested of those was Senate Bill 150, a wide-ranging bill focused on health services and school policies related to gender and human sexuality. Among many provisions, the legislation would ban puberty blockers, hormones and surgeries for transgender minors.

SB 150 also calls for greater parental communication and consent on how schools approach gender and sexuality with students. It would prohibit instruction on human sexuality in elementary school and would require written parental consent for teaching the subject in later grades. Other instruction on exploring gender identity or sexual orientation would not be allowed at any grade level.

The legislation, versions of which appeared in different bills this week, sparked long and impassioned debates in both chambers, along with another measure – Senate Bill 5 – that calls on local school boards to create a process for reviewing and resolving parental objections over sexually explicit materials in public schools.

Both SB 150 and SB 5 were sent to the governor Thursday.

Education has remained at the forefront this session, and other bills on student discipline, religious freedom in schools and school staffing received a final nod this week with varying degrees of support.

Lawmakers were more united on a different matter related to minors – a comprehensive overhaul of Kentucky’s troubled juvenile justice system.

Senate Bill 162 would place all eight of Kentucky’s juvenile detention centers under one office with a lead supervisor who reports directly the commissioner. Among many other changes, the bill seeks to increase staffing and training, enhance mental health interventions, and provide better segregation of violent offenders.

SB 162 was the result of special work group that lawmakers formed earlier this year following reports of problems in the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The measure cleared both chambers with unanimous support on Thursday, and supporters said it marks the beginning of a larger revamp.

Bipartisan consensus is also emerging on legislation related to medicinal cannabis that could potentially break a long-standing impasse in the legislature.

Senate Bill 47 calls on the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to implement, oversee and regulate a medicinal cannabis program, starting in January 2025. It would allow cannabis use for those suffering with cancer, chronic and other types of pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, chronic nausea or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Senate advanced the legislation off the floor Thursday, marking newfound support for the concept in that chamber. The bill now heads to the House where medicinal cannabis has won more favor in recent years.

Lawmakers are saving two legislative days at the end of March to override any vetoes and close out any unfinished business. After a bill receives final passage, the governor has 10 days to sign it, issue a veto or allow the legislation to become law without his signature.

Here are some of the bills that received a final vote before the legislature adjourned on Thursday.

Biomarker Testing: House Bill 180 would require health benefit plans to cover biomarker testing for patients who have been diagnosed with cancer and other diseases.

Child Abuse: Senate Bill 229 seeks to ensure that law enforcement, social services and other authorities are properly notified and communicating in cases of child abuse. It would also require agencies under investigation to cooperate with authorities.

Child Murder: House Bill 249 would make the intentional killing of a child under 12 an aggravating circumstance. That would ensure that a person who is guilty of killing a child would either be subject to life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

Coal Power: Senate Bill 4 would require utility companies to receive permission from the Kentucky Public Service Commission before retiring a fossil fuel-fired electric generating unit. The unit could not be retired if the move would compromise the quality of service to customers or negatively impact the electric grid.

Delta-8 THC: House Bill 544 would direct the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to establish regulations related to delta-8 THC by Aug. 1. That would include product testing and labeling along with prohibitions on the sale of delta-8 products to people under age 21.

ESG Investing: House Bill 236 would require that the state’s public pension investments be based on financial risks and returns and not on environmental, social and governance factors, commonly known as ESG.

Federal Firearms Bans: House Bill 153 would prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies and other public officials from enforcing any federal firearm bans or regulations enacted after Jan. 1, 2021. Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and face termination from their job.

Gray Machines: House Bill 594 clarifies that certain gambling machines, often called “gray machines” or “skill games,” are illegal in Kentucky. The devices are called gray machines because they have operated in gray area in the state’s gambling laws while growing more prevalent at gas stations and convenience stores over the past two years. Anyone who manages or owns the machines would be subject to a $25,000 fine per device. The governor signed HB 594 on Thursday.

Hazing: Senate Bill 9, known as “Lofton’s Law,” would elevate reckless or dangerous acts of hazing to a crime. First-degree hazing would qualify as a Class D felony, while second-degree hazing would be a Class A misdemeanor.

Health Care Workers: House Bill 200 aims to address a shortage in health care workers by creating the Kentucky Health Care Workforce Investment Fund. It would use both public and private money to increase scholarship opportunities in the field.

Incest: House Bill 78 would more narrowly define Kentucky’s incest laws by prohibiting a person from having sexual intercourse with his or her parent, child, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, brother, sister or ancestor or descendant.

Juvenile Detention: House Bill 3 would require that juveniles charged a violent felony offense be detained up to 48 hours pending a detention hearing with a judge beginning July 1, 2024. The bill also seeks to improve parent accountability, expand mental health interventions and enhance options for restorative justice. Other provisions would reopen the Jefferson County Youth Detention Center.

KEES for Workforce Training: Senate Bill 54 would allow students to use a Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship to attend certain propriety school programs and workforce training programs that are focused on high-demand work sectors. Students could also use KEES funds at an eligible college of art and design.

Literacy Center: Senate Bill 156 would establish a statewide reading research center for research on early reading models, instructional resources and evidence-based reading practices. The legislation builds on last year’s Read to Succeed Act, a comprehensive effort to improve early literacy outcomes in Kentucky.

Physician Wellness: Senate Bill 12 would allow physicians to participate in wellness and career fatigue programs without disclosing their participation to employers. Supporters say it will help physicians deal with job-related burnout without fear of retaliation. The bill was signed by the governor on Friday.

Postpartum Depression: Senate Bill 135 calls on the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to create a panel focused on perinatal mental health disorders and provide related information and assessment tools online.

Postsecondary Education Study: Senate Joint Resolution 98 would direct the state Council on Postsecondary Education to study the placement and services of public colleges and universities in Kentucky.

Public Employee Payroll Deductions: Senate Bill 7 would cease most automatic payroll deductions that public employees might use for paying union dues or dues to other organizations.

Religious Freedom in Schools: House Bill 547 would codify religious freedoms for public school teachers, faculty and staff, including the right to engage in religious expression and prayer during breaks and to display religious items in personal spaces.

School Staffing: House Bill 32 would allow school districts to hire classified personnel, such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers, without a high school diploma or GED. The school district must provide those employees an opportunity obtain a GED or earn relevant licenses or credentials at no cost.

Sex Offenders: Senate Bill 80 would prohibit registered sex offenders from loitering or operating a mobile business within 1,000 feet of schools, daycares, and public playgrounds or swimming pools.

State Education Commissioner: Under Senate Bill 107, the state education commissioner would be subject to Senate confirmation before taking office. The bill also sets a four-year term for the position.

Student Discipline: Under House Bill 538, school boards would be required to adopt policies related to expelling students who pose a threat to the safety and wellbeing of others and disciplining students who have physically assaulted, battered or abused personnel or other students off school property – if the incident is likely to disrupt the educational process. It would also provide more flexibility to place students into alternative learning programs.

TikTok Ban: Senate Bill 20 would ban nearly all employees in the state executive and legislative branches from using the social media app TikTok on government-owned networks and devices. The app – owned by the Chinese company ByteDance – is considered a threat to the state’s data security.

Unemployment Insurance: House Bill 146 would make technical updates to an overhaul of unemployment insurance that lawmakers passed last year. Among the changes, the measure sets the minimum duration of benefits to 16 weeks, instead of 12, and calls on state unemployment officials to advise claimants on educational and training opportunities.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Frankfort on March 29 for day 29 of the 30-day session.

Kentuckians can track the action through the Legislative Record webpage, which allows users to follow a bill’s progression through the chambers.

Citizens can also share their views on issues with lawmakers by calling the General Assembly’s toll-free message line at 1-800-372-7181.