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Ky. GOP bill would expand legislative power, set up rematch for 2022 referendum defeat

The Kentucky Capitol
Alix Mattingly
The Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort in 2015.

The proposed constitutional amendment would allow the Kentucky General Assembly to call itself back into special sessions, which voters rejected in a 2022 ballot referendum.

If at first Kentucky voters reject your attempt to amend the state constitution, try, try again.

Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne filed a bill Tuesday to amend the state constitution so the Republican supermajority could call itself back into session throughout the year — just 15 months after a similar amendment was rejected in a statewide ballot referendum.

The Kentucky Constitution states the General Assembly may not go past March 30 in odd-numbered years and April 15 in even-numbered years, with only the governor having the power to call them back into a special session — under parameters of his or her choosing — for the rest of the year.

A constitutional power struggle played out in the 2022 general election. Republicans pushed for the ballot amendment to be able to call themselves into a special session or push back the end date of the regular session. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear opposed it as a waste of tax dollars.

House Bill 4 filed by Osborne this session is not identical to what 53.5% of voters rejected in 2022, especially when it comes to the length of the proposed amendment, which was 744 words and took up nearly the entire length of the ballot that year.

This time, the ballot amendment would be a fourth of that size at around 180 words, but it must first make its way through the General Assembly with at least three-fifths of the vote in both chambers.

Whereas the 2022 proposal eliminated sections 34, 42 and 55 of the constitution and added two lengthy new sections, HB 4 would just add one new section split in two sentences.

The first change would state that regular sessions of the legislature would end at a date established under law by the General Assembly, while also allowing that final date to be pushed back if agreed upon by three-fifths of all members in each chamber. This language would not allow regular sessions to last longer than the 30 and 60 legislative days for odd and even-numbered year sessions set forth in another section of the constitution.

The second change under HB 4 would allow the House speaker and Senate president to call the legislature back into special session under a joint proclamation. They could call for a special session no more than twice in a year and for no more than 12 days total, “during which it may adjourn from time to time.”

Kentucky is one of just 13 states where only the governor can call a special legislative session. Of the states where the legislature can call itself into session, only a few can do so by actions of their presiding officers and not a vote of their members.

A maximum of four constitutional amendment referendums can be on the ballot in even-numbered year general elections in Kentucky. There have been 15 bills filed this session to amend the constitution, with one already passing the House and one passing the Senate.

In the 2022 election, a PAC formed by Beshear’s campaign manager raised and spent $365,000 on ads opposing the ballot amendment, which was mostly funded by teacher unions. The PAC and governor said the constitutional amendment would turn part-time legislators into full-time legislators and “enrich” them with additional days of pay.

Republicans passed the bill to set the ballot amendment in place in the 2021 legislative session, frustrated that they could not call themselves back into session in 2020 to roll back COVID-19 regulations Beshear implemented through executive orders.

LPM's state government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.