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LISTEN: Budget wins, 'school choice' and gold bars: 2024 Kentucky legislative takeaways

The Kentucky Capitol
Ryan Van Velzer
The Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort in spring 2024.

Relationships between Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature appeared to improve little as lawmakers looked back over the session.

It’s a common refrain among some members of the statehouse that Kentucky lawmakers don’t fall prey to the same partisan politics of Washington, that at the end of the day, they all get along. The past few years have put that notion to the test, and the relationship between the two parties appears as strained as ever as this year’s session draws to a close.

On the steps outside the state Capitol Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers and party leadership gathered to sound alarm bells on legislation, including on bills that fell short of becoming law this year.

“Our Republican friends tried to slash SNAP benefits and reverse child labor protections. They removed a sales tax on gold bars, but could not be bothered to relieve the burden of diaper [costs],” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge.

Immediately afterwards inside the Capitol, Republican Senate leadership held their own press conference to extol the virtues of the budget they passed over the objection of some Democrats and the Democratic governor’s line item vetoes. They said it both addresses the needs of the state and sets the stage for future income tax cuts.

“I couldn't be prouder of the accomplishments that we achieved,” said Georgetown GOP Senate Floor Leader Damon Thayer. “Knowing that two years from now, for the fourth time, Republicans will have led the way to yet another tax cut I believe is one of the biggest and best stories coming out of this legislature.”

Republicans also cheered House Bill 5, which they passed over the governor’s veto in the final days of the session. The so-called Safer Kentucky Act is one of the most controversial of the session. The omnibus legislation increases penalties on a number of crimes, places a ban on street camping and much more.

On the other hand, a few of the session's most high-profile GOP bills did not end up making the final cut this year, including a bill to eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion offices at public colleges and a few that would slash state-specific worker protections.

House Minority Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson, a Lexington Democrat, said she considers those failed bills part of her success as well.

“I think the fact that we stand up and fight and the things that we were able to stop are just as important as the things we are able to bring home,” Stevenson said.

Democrats especially applauded the failure of Senate Bill 6, the anti-DEI bill. Thayer, who is not running for reelection, scoffed at the idea that its failure had to do with Democratic intervention, instead attributing its collapse to disagreement within the party.

“Well I don’t think they deserve credit for stopping it,” Thayer said. “One of our favorite things to say during the last few days of the legislature when bills that have support but not enough to pass, we say, ‘Look, we’ll be back here in eight months.’”

Democrats continued to lament what they call a lack of investment in public education while Republicans celebrated a budget they say demonstrates “fiscal discipline.”

The two parties also set themselves up to vie over this year’s Amendment 2, a ballot question that proposes to amend the state constitution to allow public money to flow to private schools.

Public money to private schools

The GOP-controlled legislature passed a number of bills, but the one that Kentuckians will probably hear a lot about over the next several months, leading up to November, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to be used on private education, often called the “school choice” amendment by proponents.

Thayer said the amendment would likely bring in outside actors, looking to convince people to vote for or against the proposal.

“I think it has a very good chance to pass, but I’m not naïve,” Thayer said. “There will be a lot of money spent to try and defeat it, but we think there are going to be groups coming into Kentucky and groups from Kentucky who are going to be investing heavily.”

Stevenson said she is already confident the amendment will fail.

“Kentuckians are smart enough to see through that effort. It’s absolutely an effort to destroy our public schools, and we are going to win,” Stevenson said.

Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Elridge compared the amendment to the 2022 GOP attempt to enshrine the state’s abortion ban into the constitution.

“Those two issues aren’t Democratic or Republican. Those are bread-and-butter issues for the majority of Kentuckians,” Elridge said.

Either way, GOP Senate President Robert Stivers from Manchester said he expects the ballot question to end the debate on school choice issues. For years, Republicans have pushed legislation to create private scholarship tax credits and charter school programs, none of which have so far passed court scrutiny.

“I think [the vote] would answer the question once and for all,” Stivers said.

Budget wins and ‘missed opportunities’

While Democrats applauded some of the large investments in the budget, like the $100 million allocated for downtown Louisville’s revitalization and other investments across the state, they also expressed disappointment that the budget didn’t include more, especially for public education.

But, as Thayer said frequently throughout the session, the Republican philosophy behind the budget was “you can’t always get what you want.” And although Republicans consistently said they did not work backwards on the budget in order to justify tax cuts, Thayer still said those cuts were one of his greatest accomplishments in office.

“Because of the conservative management and fiscal discipline we showed during the budget process, Kentuckians by this time in 2026 will have their taxes cut yet again a fourth time down to 3.5%,” Thayer said.

The legislature was not able to pass an income tax cut this year, because the state didn’t meet one of the two triggers set up in the initial legislation. Unless they override those triggers, another cut in 2026 is not guaranteed. However, legislation passed this year makes it easier for the state to lower the income tax in coming years.

Although the budget included no universal school personnel raises, GOP Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson said superintendents have informed him there is enough for raises.

“We find out from our superintendents and our new commissioner… that they are able to give significant raises to our teachers, as a result of those increases in the sake funding formula per student,” Wilson said.

However, the Kentucky Association of School Administrations previously said in a statement that the increases in funding could yield raises, but they would be insignificant — likely less than 3%, the group said.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.
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