Shortened session ends with few successes

Noting the “chaos” near the end of the 2020 Kentucky General Assembly due to COVID-19, leaders of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky said they saw some successes and acknowledged numerous setbacks, including the failure of Senate Bill 9.

SB 9 — known as the Infant Born-Alive Protection Act — would have required a physician performing an abortion to provide life-sustaining care for an infant born alive after a failed abortion attempt.

The measure was introduced Jan. 13 and won bi-partisan Senate approval Jan. 27 with a 32-0 vote. But the House, which has a Republican super-majority, was slow to act, passing it on the last day of the session, April 15, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to override a veto by the governor.

Jason Hall, executive director of the conference, which represents Kentucky’s four bishops on matters of public policy, said he was “disappointed” the bill didn’t pass earlier in the session, noting the early passage by the Senate.

Senate “leadership has, in response to the veto, promised to pass it early next session to avoid the same situation,” said Hall. “It’s frustrating they didn’t just do that this time. The Senate got it to the House very early.”

Beshear said in his veto message April 24 that existing law already protects the lives of infants and that similar legislation has been struck down as unconstitutional in other states. He said he “was not doing divisive issues” because he was focused on defeating the coronavirus.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield of Hopkinsville, Ky., primary sponsor of the bill, said he was “deeply disappointed but not at all surprised” by the governor’s veto.

“SB 9, a bill he claims is divisive, was passed with a strong bipartisan vote in both chambers,” he said.

He said he didn’t know why the House didn’t act on it earlier.

“I certainly hoped it would be passed before the veto recess, giving us an opportunity to override a veto,” he said.

The bill was taken up by the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 29 and passed through that committee March 11. On

March 17, it was posted in the orders of the day, meaning it could be called for a vote. But the House didn’t take a vote until nearly a month later — April 15, when it easily passed with an amendment in a 70-16 vote. The Senate approved changes and it went to the governor’s desk.

But by sending the measure to the governor on the last day of the session, there was no time to override the veto. Earlier in the session, lawmakers voted to override several vetoes.

Westerfield said the bill had “top priority” for him and has already filed a bill request for the 2021 session.

Even with the disappointing end of SB 9, the CCK was encouraged by the movement of several criminal justice measures.

“This was a more positive session on criminal justice issues that we have seen in a while,” Hall said.

House Bill 284 expands the incentives that are currently available for parolees to those on probation. It was passed and signed by the governor. Up until now, Hall said, parole time could be reduced by meeting various conditions, but probation had no similar system.

House Bill 327 was also passed and signed into law. It creates a system that automatically expunges dismissals and acquittals.

“If someone is charged with a crime but is never prosecuted or is acquitted, the charge will be expunged from their record,” Hall explained.

Two other criminal justice issues were not as successful. Senate Bill 154, which would have prohibited the use of the death penalty in individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness, failed to move. It reported out of committee but never came up for a vote. And, House Bill 424, which would have raised the threshold for when a theft becomes a felony from $500 to $1,000, also came up short. It passed the House with a vote of 73-17.

“Absent the shortening of the session, this bill (HB 424) very well might have also passed the Senate. Hopefully, it will be ready to go quickly next session,” Hall said.

n House Bill 350, which would have provided tax credits for individuals or businesses who donated to scholarship-granting organizations, such as the Catholic Education Foundation, failed to move. Hall criticized inaction by lawmakers.

“Members of the Republican caucus didn’t want to take a vote on it. In the end, they were able to stall and delay and run the clock out.

“It’s frustrating because when push comes to shove we have enough votes but, when it’s time to vote, some lawmakers do not want to do it,” Hall said.

Both House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1, which aimed to prevent the creation of so-called sanctuary cities in Kentucky, were tabled by the legislature. While the bills took aim at sanctuary policies, they had broader implications, Hall said in an interview earlier in the session. Hall said he expects the issue to return in the 2021 session.

House Bill 67, which proposed an amendment to the state constitution clarifying that there is no right to an abortion, passed the House before the pandemic upended the session but with the shortened schedule, Hall said, it did not receive a hearing in the Senate.

“This very likely would have made it through under normal conditions, and will likely be proposed again,” he said.

Senate Bill 62, which would have restored voting rights for individuals convicted of certain felonies, failed to move this session.

“It ran out of time, but there was more energy around this than we’ve seen in a while,” Hall said.

On March 16, Beshear closed the Capitol to guests and asked nonessential personnel to remain at home. Lawmakers did not meet from March 19 to 26 and again from April 2 to 14 in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The public was not permitted to attend meetings in person because of health concerns.

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