Sen. Jason Howell

Last week’s 30-day Regular Session activity ended with over 100 bills on the governor’s desk. Having already completed 28 legislative days, both the House and the Senate raced to approve bills through the process until the figurative and literal 11th hour.

We’ve now entered into the veto recess period, which means last week was the final opportunity for lawmakers to pass bills and still have the opportunity to override any gubernatorial vetoes before the final day of the legislative session. The governor has ten days to sign a bill, let it become law without his signature, or veto it.

The Kentucky General Assembly approved the second half of the state’s 24-month spending plan after uncertainties from COVID-19 cut budget negotiations short nearly a year ago.

The executive budget, contained in House Bill 192, is as a near continuation budget from the previous fiscal year with necessary modifications. In addition to making structural changes that would ensure the road fund is spent on roads, the executive budget would put $134 million into the rainy day fund this year and another $609 million next year. The executive budget also includes a 2% increase in funding for higher education through a performance-based model, targeted raises for crime lab technicians, and money for the coroner’s office. This budget also addresses Kentucky’s severely outdated unemployment insurance system.

Senate changes to the budget’s accompanying revenue measure, known as House Bill 249, would allow the motor vehicle commission to charge new fees, expand the film industry tax credit, increase the cap on the historic preservation tax credit, allow a one-year property tax exemption for veterans’ service organizations, and manage an emergency disaster relief account within the road fund.

We are taking a careful and conservative approach as we continue to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic. The state has received millions in one-time dollars from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the most recent federal stimulus package. Due to these federal funds boosting our society’s various sectors, the economic outlook and state revenue may be artificially inflated. There is no sure way of knowing what state revenues or the economy will look like once there is no stimulus money to help prop things up. It would be financially irresponsible for the state to use one-time dollars to put Kentucky taxpayers on the hook for recurring expenses in future years when we will not lean on federal funds.

An essential aspect of the budget is maintaining legislative authority on the allocation of funds, as required by the Constitution of Kentucky. The bill stipulates that the General Assembly must authorize the use of these monies. Thirty-seven million dollars in federal funding will go toward grants to detect, diagnose, trace, and monitor COVID-19 infections in congregate and vulnerable populations. Additionally, $10 million in state funds will go to the School Facilities Construction Commission for schools recently damaged by flooding.

A critical element in the economic growth of our state is access to reliable internet services for Kentuckians. Reliable broadband can be the difference in companies’ decisions to establish themselves in our communities. With the reliance on virtual learning our students have had this past year, it is evident how a lack of reliable internet access only exacerbates Kentucky students’ struggles. While COVID-19 forced us to rely on more virtual services, we have also seen growth in telehealth services. Securing reliable internet access to areas currently without it can help our economy, education, and even improve health outcomes.

With this in mind, the legislature passed House Bill (HB) 320, allocating $250 million of federal money to expand access to broadband connectivity. However, the bill stipulates that no more than $50 million can be spent before April of next year to make sure efforts are deliberate, effective, and will go to the areas that need it most. This initial $50 million will get the ball rolling. Legislators will return next January to provide ample opportunity to assess the efforts made between now and then to determine the best path forward. The funding will be targeted to utilize existing infrastructure and the experienced workforce through electric co-ops. In reality, the allocated funds will equate to $500 million because the $250 million will be used as matching funds for the projects.

The House and Senate have overridden the governor’s vetoes on Senate Bill (SB) 3 and House Bill (HB) 6. Since both of these measures contain what’s known as an emergency clause, the bills go into effect immediately upon becoming law rather than 90 days after adjournment.

Senate Bill 3 moves the Office of Agricultural Policy under the jurisdiction of the Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner’s Office. Moving these critical state boards under the authority of the Commissioner of Agriculture streamlines our efforts to strengthen Kentucky agriculture and help our farmers. The office’s official role is the promotion of interests of agriculture and horticulture, agricultural revenues, and the protection of Kentucky’s livestock industries.

House Bill 6 strengthens an already existing legislative committee which, with the passing of this bill, would become the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee. It codifies subpoena powers, gives the committee the ability to maintain the confidentiality of investigative documents, and imposes fines on those in non-compliance with the committee’s efforts.

Other bills passed in both the House and Senate include:

House Bill 95 aims to help Kentuckians struggling with diabetes by capping the cost of out-of-pocket insulin at $30 for a 30 day supply. It applies to state-regulated, comprehensive, private health insurance plans and the Kentucky employee health plan. It does not apply to Medicare, Medicaid, or self-funded health plans.

Senate Bill 44 would require insurance companies to treat premium and other cost-sharing payments made by nonprofits on behalf of someone as if those payments came from that individual.

Senate Bill 45 would require health insurance companies to apply the value of drug coupons to their enrollees’ deductibles, also known as copay accumulators. SB 45 generally wouldn’t apply if a generic drug were available.

Senate Bill 80 would strengthen the police decertification process in Kentucky by expanding the number of acts considered professional wrongdoing.

A second provision would set up a system for an officer’s automatic decertification under certain circumstances. A final provision would prevent an officer from skirting decertification by resigning or retiring before an internal investigation is complete.

House Bill 126 would raise the threshold of felony theft to $1,000. Under current law, stealing anything worth $500 or more is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. It would also allow law enforcement to charge members of organized shoplifting rings with a felony if a member stole a total of $1,000 worth of merchandise over 90 days.

House Bill 230 would provide sales and other tax breaks to businesses that are located in facilities of at least 200,000 square feet for cryptocurrency mining. The exemptions would be for electricity used in the mining process. Mining cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, is a process in which high-powered computers are used to solve complex math problems and unlock new currency.

House Bill 273 named the Bailey Holt-Preston Cope Victims Privacy Act, would exclude from the open records act photographs or videos that depict a person’s death, killing, rape, sexual assault or abuse.

It is named in honor of Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, who were killed in the 2018 Marshall County High School shooting at the age of 15.

House Bill 328 would re-establish the state’s regulatory authority for roadside billboards after a federal court ruling called the state’s prior regulations into question. One concern had been that Kentucky was at risk of losing as much as $70 million in federal transportation funding for not meeting a federal requirement concerning roadside billboards.

House Bill 497 would help convicts transition out of prison get jobs, health care, state IDs and access to social services such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It would also create a “certificate of employability” to help former inmates find jobs for which they are trained.

Looking ahead, the General Assembly will return on March 29 and March 30 for the final two days of the session and sine die adjournment. Thank you for staying engaged in the legislative process. I continue to be proud and humbled to represent the 1st Senate District.

If you have any questions or comments about these issues or any other public policy issue, please call me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me Jason.Howell@LRC.ky.gov.

Sen. Jason Howell (R- Murray) represents the 1st District including Calloway, Fulton, Graves, Hickman, Lyon, and Trigg counties. Howell serves as vice-chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on licensing & occupations. He is also a member of the Senate Standing Committees on Agriculture; Banking and Insurance; and Health and Welfare.

Additionally, Howell serves as a member of the Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Statutory Committee.