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Lawmakers Transformed Kentucky's Legal Landscape During 2017 General Assembly


Lawmakers transformed the legal landscape of Kentucky during this year’s General Assembly.  The state has new laws restricting abortions and allowing charter schools.  Legislators also passed pro-business measures that forbid mandatory union dues and add a hurdle for people suing doctors and hospitals for malpractice.

Capitol reporter Ryland Barton has this report on what passed the General Assembly and how the new laws might affect Kentuckians.    

On the last day of the legislative session, Gov. Matt Bevin walked up to the state Senate and thanked lawmakers for their work…which was for the most part, in lock-step with the governor’s agenda.

“This has been a transformative session. Kentucky is better for it. We’ve put seeds in the ground that are going to germinate over time. And as we get older and our kids and grandkids grow up, we’ll be able to look back on the 2017 session and be amazed at the things you’ve set in motion.

Both chambers in the General Assembly were controlled by Republicans for the first time in state history this year and they flexed their political will by passing bills that never had a chance under Democratic control.

“It proves that elections have consequences. ”This is Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown. “Over the last few election cycles, the people of Kentucky have sent a message that they wanted a new direction for this commonwealth. And it wasn’t always easy, Mr. President. But save for a handful of bills, you can truly say about this session: promises made, promises kept.”

Kentucky is now a so-called “right-to-work” state, meaning companies can’t force workers to pay union dues in order to get a job. Though opponents of the concept say it lowers wages, supporters say right-to-work makes Kentucky more competitive for companies looking to relocate to or expand in Kentucky.

House Speaker Jeff Hoover credited the law for the announcement that Amazon will invest $1.5 billion to create an air hub at the Cincinnati airport in Northern Kentucky.

Economic Development Cabinet Secretary Terry Gill made a similar claim about a yet-to-be revealed company that’s looking to invest in Eastern Kentucky.  “It is a result of the, I would say, improving business climate in the state.”

Lawmakers voted to set aside $15 million in bonds to help attract that mystery project on the last day of the legislative session.

The legislature also voted to allow Charter Schools to apply to open up in Kentucky as soon as this fall.

Charters have been controversial because they will be exempted from most state regulations but still use state funding.

Supporters say the institutions will better educate students. Here’s Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt.

“It won’t be the silver bullet, it won’t be the panacea, but they can be something—and I’ve personally seen how they’ve done some really great things for kids who maybe didn’t fit in the natural, normal environment.”

Students will be allowed to enroll in charter schools located within their school districts. A lottery will be set up if too many students apply.

The legislature also passed a handful of bills to restrict abortions in the state. Here’s Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer again.

“We sent a message across the United States of America that in Kentucky we value life from conception on. We are now one of the most pro-life states in the United States”

Gov. Bevin signed new laws that ban abortions after the 20th week in pregnancy and put Planned Parenthood at the back of the line for federal funding.

A new law requiring doctors to conduct and describe ultrasounds on women seeking abortions has already been challenged in federal court.

Meanwhile the state’s only abortion provider is suing to stay open after the state health cabinet threatened to shut it down.

House Speaker Hoover says he doesn't have any disappointments as the first Republican to preside over the chamber in nearly a century.

“It was a great session, I’m very proud of what this House did and the significant legislation that was passed. There was more significant legislation passed in the 2017 session than in any session in recent memory.”

Gov. Bevin says he wants to call a special legislative session this year for lawmakers to hammer out a tax reform plan that might include tax increases. Republican legislators have been slow to throw their support behind the concept

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. Always looking to put a face to big issues,Ryland'sreporting has taken him to drought-weary towns in West Texas and relocated communities in rural China. He's covered breaking news like the 2014 shooting at Fort Hood Army Base and the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
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