By Tom Troth, Legislative Agent
Kentucky Baptist Convention
The members of the General Assembly have left Frankfort and returned to their home districts for the 10-day veto recess. They will return at noon on March 29, 2017, for two more days to deal with any potential Gubernatorial vetoes and to pass additional legislation. There were 793 House and Senate Bills filed and 366 House and Senate Resolutions. Of that number 143 bills and resolutions have been enacted and sent to the Governor for his signature or possible veto.
During this lull in the action, I wanted provide an update and give my assessment of the 2017 legislative session. It is my view that Kentucky Baptists have much to thank God for as this legislative session comes to a close. Allow me to share a few of the highlights from the session.
PROTECTION OF THE UNBORN
The very first week of the session, the legislature passed two critically important pro-life pieces of legislation. House Bill 2, requires an ultrasound be performed, with the images and an audio of the fetal heartbeat made available for the mother to view prior to an abortion being performed. Of course, it is hoped that when a mother sees the ultrasound images and hears the heartbeat, she will choose to allow her unborn child to live. Senate Bill 5, was also enacted, which bans abortions after 20 weeks. Both these protections for the unborn were passed and sent to the Governor in an unprecedented Saturday session during that first week.
Later in the session the General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 8 which would “prohibit state and local funds from being used, granted, paid or distributed to an entity, organization or individual that provides abortion services” or referrals for abortion. This legislation is commonly known as the Defund Planned Parenthood bill.
With regard to protection for the unborn, Kentucky Baptists have been working and praying for years that significant legislation like House Bill 2, Senate Bill 5 and Senate Bill 8 would be enacted into law. It is gratifying to see pro-life protections become a priority for the Kentucky General Assembly. If you have not already done so, please thank your legislators for their courageous stand to protect the life of the unborn.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY LEGISLATION
Religious liberty protections were also front and center in the 2017 legislative session. The General Assembly passed Senate Bill 17, which allows students in public schools and college campuses to express their religious and political viewpoints free from discrimination and censorship to the same extent as non-religious views may be expressed. The rights enumerated in Senate Bill 17 are already largely already protected by current court rulings but the bill memorializes these protections in Kentucky statute.
ADOPTION AND FOSTER CARE
Foster care and Adoption were also a priority for the legislature this year. Two pieces of legislation promoted by the Health and Family Services Cabinet will have the effect of easing the burden on foster children and foster families.
House Bill 180 will allow for the “fictive kin” placement of a child in foster care. Fictive Kin is defined as “an individual who is not related by birth, adoption, or marriage to a child, but who has an emotionally significant relationship with the child.” A church member who has a significant relationship with a child could be eligible for a “fictive kin” placement. This could potentially expand the reach of the church in caring for children who are in need.
House Bill 192, will end the prohibition of children in the custody of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services from obtaining a driver’s license. This legislation will provide additional flexibility to the foster parents in the transportation of a foster child to and from extracurricular activities.
Perhaps the most significant and far reaching impact on adoption and foster care in the Commonwealth is the Open Hearts/Open Homes initiative, which is a part of the Governor’s pledge to improve the Adoption and Foster Care system by mobilizing a network of non-profits, faith-based organizations and loving families. The Health and Family Services Cabinet has commissioned an in-depth study of the Adoption/Foster Care process by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Recommendations from the foundation to make the entire system more efficient by the removal of barriers to foster care and adoption will be forthcoming. This study will result in a legislative package to be considered by the 2018 Kentucky General Assembly. Kentucky Baptists will be fully engaged in this important initiative by the Governor.
WORKERS COMPENSATION RELIEF FOR SMALLER CHURCHES.
The General Assembly sought to give some financial relief to churches with bi-vocational pastors by enacting House Bill 306. The intention of this legislation is to exempt small churches who don’t pay salaries to their pastors from having to pay workers compensation insurance. It also is intended exempt the church from having to pay workers compensation for independent contractors, like individuals who cut the grass for the church.
PREVENTION OF HUMAN TRAFFICKING
At the 2016 annual meeting, the Kentucky Baptist Convention enacted a resolution on the evil of human trafficking. That resolution said in part that “we call on Kentucky Baptist to support public policies at the local … [and] …state … level which combat human trafficking.” House Bill 524 is a bill that seeks to combat the evils of human trafficking. If finally passed, the legislation would require individuals who are found guilty of human trafficking of minors to register on the sex offender, or crimes against minor children registry. The legislation would also require the posting of the human trafficking hotline number at public schools and at public rest areas. Finally, the legislation adds additional definitions of what constitutes a serious physical injury of a minor. This legislation has not yet been enacted but is poised for passage on March 29, or 30 when the General Assembly returns from the veto recess.
BIBLICAL LITERACY COURSES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
House Bill 128, would require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to allow for an elective social studies course on the Bible. The course would not be religious instruction but would allow for the study of the literary aspects of the scriptures. This bill is poised for passage during the final two veto days on March 29 or March 30.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
The General Assembly is poised to finally pass Senate Bill 120 relating to criminal justice reform when they return after the veto recess. The legislation does not reduce crimes or the sentences imposed for those crimes, but primarily seeks to provide work opportunities for inmates while they are incarcerated. The legislation also attempts to reduce recidivism by providing training and reducing barriers that limit work opportunities upon an inmate’s release. The hope is that by providing these work opportunities, once an inmate has paid his debt to society he will be better equipped to become a productive citizen again.
Senate Bill 204, filed by Senator Morgan McGarvey, proposed to amend the Kentucky Constitution to allow for expanded casino gambling in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. A similar bill was filed in the House by Representative Jerry Miller, House Bill 373. In both these bills 100% of the proceeds from expanded gambling would go to resolve the pension crisis. Neither of these bills were considered during the 2017 legislative session. In fact no potential amendments to the Kentucky Constitution were considered.
PAY DAY LENDING/FLEX LOANS
Several bills were filed regarding pay day lending during the 2017 session. Senate Bill 168 and House Bill 320 would cap pay day loans at an interest rate of 36%. Senate Bill 169, and House Bill 321 would enhance the penalties for companies violating the pay day lending laws.
House Bill 447, would have provided an additional predatory lending option to pay day lenders which is often referred to as a Flex Loan. Persons using these flex loans would be allowed borrow up to $1,000 on an open ended note, much like a credit card. The interest rate on these flex loans as set forth in the legislation is 24%. However, a customary daily .7% fee is also charged on the loan which results in interest rates of up to 280%.
None of these pay day lending bills were heard during the legislative session.
Senate Bill 57 would have provided for the cultivation, regulation and sale of marijuana for medical uses only. Senate Bill 76 would have provided for the cultivation, regulation and sale of recreational marijuana. Senate Bill 243 would have allowed for the use of medical marijuana for palliative or end of life care. None of these bills were considered by the General Assembly during the 2017 session.
EDUCATION RELATED LEGISLATION
House Bill 58, often referred to as the Tim Tebow bill, would authorize participation in public school interscholastic extracurricular activities by home school students. Though the legislation passed the House of Representatives, it currently appears that it may not have sufficient momentum to become law during the current legislative session.
House Bill 162, and Senate Bill 102, would authorize the creation of a scholarship tax credit program for low to middle income students or students with disabilities in non-public schools, grades K-12. This legislation would directly benefit students at institutions such as Oneida Baptist Institute. Though not enacted during the current legislative session, this tax credit program appears to be poised for favorable consideration in the upcoming special legislative session when the General Assembly will consider tax reform.
House Bill 522 appears poised for passage when the Kentucky General Assembly returns on March 29. This legislation as amended in the Senate would create a requirement that high school students pass a financial literacy course prior to graduation from a public high school.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the bills that I tracked during the legislative session, but is an attempt to provide you with the highlights. As I said at the beginning of this update, I believe Kentucky Baptists have much to be thankful for as the 2017 Kentucky General Assembly comes to a close. It has been an honor to serve as your legislative agent. If you have any questions or concerns, or would like further information on these or any other legislative issues that have been or may be considered in the future, I would be honored to speak to you. You can contact me at 502 330-5024 or send me an e-mail at [email protected].