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The 2024 Kentucky legislative session kicks off Tuesday. Here’s what to look for

The Kentucky state Capitol building in Frankfort, view looking upward
Ryan Van Velzer
/
LPM
The Kentucky Capitol building in Frankfort.

State lawmakers return to Frankfort Jan. 2 for the beginning of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2024 session. Their primary task will be passing a two-year budget for state government.

The session will last 60 legislative days and conclude April 15 with the Republican supermajority still firmly in control of its agenda. The party holds roughly 80% of the seats in each chamber and needs only a constitutional majority vote to override any veto of the governor.

And that governor remains Andy Beshear. The Democratic incumbent won reelection in November and then released an ambitious budget proposal two weeks before the session’s start.

The working relationship of Beshear and the Republican supermajority has been rocky over the past four years, but will the governor’s second term kick off with more legislative cooperation, or the same old partisan status quo?

There’s also less certainty than usual about what other legislation will advance, as the controlling party has not laid out a detailed plan for the next few months.

That said, here’s a look ahead at what to watch for in the 2024 session and some of the big issues that are expected to be taken up in legislation.

The budget: spending versus tax cuts?

Continuing some political gamesmanship from 2022, Beshear unexpectedly released his budget bill in December — a plan to spend $33 billion from the state’s General Fund over the next two fiscal years and significantly expand education and child care appropriations.

House Republicans are likely to roll out their own budget bill in the first week of the session, and it’s unclear how many of Beshear’s top-ticket items will be included.

Beshear’s most ambitious budget items — which he previewed as part of the reelection campaign — involve public education, including 11% raises for all school staff, full funding for school districts’ transportation costs and universal pre-K. The price tag for those three items alone over the next two years is an additional $1.7 billion.

Also high on the governor’s budget agenda is $141 million for increased assistance to child care providers, as the federal funding that propped up the industry during the pandemic is coming to an end.

Republicans are likely to get behind at least some of Beshear’s budget proposals, including funding for infrastructure projects, public safety and child care — the latter viewed as a workforce participation issue. But there’s also one big factor likely to keep their total spending figure lower than what’s called for by Beshear: tax cuts.

A GOP bill in 2022 set up a trigger mechanism to lower the individual income tax rate by half a percent each year until it’s eliminated, but General Fund spending was $435 million too high in the 2023 fiscal year to reduce the tax rate again to 3.5% in 2025.

Republicans who want to eliminate the state’s income tax as soon as possible are likely to want to keep spending low enough to hit the trigger in future years, but it’s still unclear what their spending ceiling will be, and which of the governor’s priorities will be left behind.

Republican legislators also haven’t totally ruled out lowering the tax rate anyway in 2025, or weakening the budget mechanism so tax cuts triggers are easier to meet in future years.

Education: A constitutional ‘choice’ and JCPS

In addition to budget questions about the level of K-12 public school funding and employee raises, Republicans are likely to pursue a constitutional amendment that would remove a longstanding barrier to the funding of private schools.

Republican lawmakers have signaled they will try to amend the Kentucky Constitution to declare that the legislature can fund education “outside the system of common schools.”

This constitutional provision has hindered the implementation of other “school choice” measures passed by the GOP legislature to advance private and religious schools, with courts striking them down.

Despite the GOP’s large supermajority, there is still a high bar to clear for this constitutional amendment. Such an amendment first requires a three-fifths majority vote in each chamber and then approval of voters in a statewide referendum that fall.

Additionally, many rural GOP legislators have been resistant to support school choice legislation, as public school districts are major employers in many counties and there is concern they could be undermined if funding is diverted to private schools.

There is also the question of what kind of legislation Republicans will direct at Jefferson County Public Schools. As Kentucky’s largest and most-scrutinized district, JCPS has come under increased criticism over the busing debacle in August.

Republican lawmakers from Louisville signed a public statement at the time saying they want to consider legislation to divide JCPS up into smaller districts.

Crime and juvenile justice

Louisville Republicans have also drafted a wide-ranging bill to tackle mostly violent crime, which they presented at a committee meeting in December.

Dubbed the Safer Kentucky Act, among its provisions is a three strikes law to require a life sentence after a person’s third violent felony, along with increasing penalties for crimes like carjacking and fentanyl trafficking that results in an overdose death. It would also crack down on vandalism and allow businesses to use force to stop shoplifters.

The legislation would ban all street camping and prohibit the use of state money toward Housing First initiatives, which provide a person housing before enforcing other behavioral requirements.

A bill to grant new wiretapping authority for state and local law enforcement is also expected to be filed by GOP Rep. Kevin Bratcher of Louisville, which he says would provide a vital tool to fight violent gang activity in Louisville.

While supported by Louisville’s Democratic mayor, the wiretapping proposal has already drawn early criticism from not just the ACLU of Kentucky, but also the small government wing of the GOP caucus.

There is also bipartisan support for a bill to allow firearms to be temporarily removed from people having a mental health crisis via judicial order, though there remains strong Republican opposition to the proposal, which has blocked it in past sessions.

Also expected is legislation to address the crisis over the past year in Kentucky’s juvenile justice detention centers and foster care system. Beshear’s budget proposes major renovations to detention facilities around the state along with increased rates for foster care providers.

Culture wars: Abortion and diversity

Having already enacted a near-total ban on abortion in Kentucky, social conservatives in the Republican supermajority targeted transgender youth in the 2023 session — passing a wide-ranging bill banning gender-affirming medical care and allowing teachers to misgender trans students.

However, some Kentucky Republicans are wondering if they’ve gone a step too far, particularly on abortion. They’ve cited how the lack of rape and incest exceptions to the abortion bans was used effectively by Beshear in his reelection campaign to paint Republican opponent Daniel Cameron as extreme on the issue.

While some Republicans hope to advance legislation adding such exceptions to the abortion bans, this is also sure to face stiff opposition from much of their caucus, as groups like Kentucky Right to Life are strongly opposed to changing the law.

After taking on “ESG” practices in recent years, Republicans may also follow the lead of other states and target diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, particularly in education.

Senate GOP leadership rallied against a college accreditation group in December when it considered requiring DEI initiatives, calling them “thinly veiled ideological standards that stifle or stigmatize opposing ideas.”

Keeping cards close to the chest

Whereas Republican lawmakers usually provide a thorough preview of their top legislative priorities in advance of a session, Senate and House leadership have yet to conduct such a press briefing, outside of various chamber of commerce events.

Along with the House GOP’s budget bill, those top Republican priorities for the 2024 session may not be revealed until lawmakers descend on Frankfort in January and start filing bills.

Additionally, while many bills used to be prefiled and publicly posted in the months leading up to a session, Republicans have done away with that practice and no longer house draft bills on a specific page of the Legislative Research Commission website.

Then again, sometimes we won’t know what’s passing into law until the last second.

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky issued a report in November blasting how bills in Frankfort are increasingly fast-tracked into law through maneuvers that shield their language and prevent public input. Even eight members of the GOP supermajority wrote a letter to leadership in December asking for a rules change to prevent bills amended at the last minute from speeding through without proper readings or the opportunity for floor amendments.

And one final mystery of the session is whether Beshear and GOP legislative leaders can get along and find more common ground — or instead continue to blame each other for refusing to constructively work with each other.

Beshear says his reelection may provide such a bridge — as he’s now term-limited and Republicans may be less inclined to block him from any legislative “wins.” However, there’s also the question of what Beshear does next in 2028 and beyond, as his national profile grows.

Additionally, the size of the GOP supermajority is so large that there’s nothing stopping them from going their own way to enact their own policy —only engaging with the governor when overriding his vetoes.

Capitol Reporter Sylvia Goodman contributed to this story.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.