FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers convened Tuesday to begin a 60-day session that will be dominated by the challenge of passing a new two-year state budget amid competing demands and limited revenues.
A flurry of bill introductions highlighted opening day in the House and Senate. Among the stacks of new bills was one to legalize sports betting in Kentucky as a way to generate more tax dollars.
This year’s session will stretch into mid-April. Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, but there’s a new political dynamic with Democrat Andy Beshear now in the governor’s office.
Since his election last year, Beshear has emphasized the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the need to avoid bitter fights when disagreements arise. The new governor lists education, health care, pensions and jobs offering better wages as his top priorities.
House Speaker David Osborne told reporters that budget work looms as the top priority.
“We continue to be a state with many needs and one with limited resources," he said.
Asked if House Republicans share Beshear's commitment to making education the top budget priority, Osborne pointed to spending boosts GOP lawmakers gave schools in the last budget session two years ago.
“We've firmly established that we're going to make that a priority," the speaker said.
The new governor and lawmakers will confront considerable spending pressures amid projections for only modest revenue growth in coming years. Big-ticket costs for public pension systems, health care and corrections will complicate their work. Beshear will submit his spending plan in late January.
Republican Rep. Adam Koenig introduced a sports wagering bill on the first day, saying its prospects are boosted by the state’s need for revenue. Legalizing sports betting could generate tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue, he said, and the bill specifies that most of the money would go to help shore up the state's struggling public pension systems.
A sports betting proposal died in last year's legislative session. But Osborne said Tuesday that there's “considerable interest" in the legislation among House members. Other issues House Republicans will focus on include boosting job growth, combating opioid abuse and making more improvements to the adoption and foster care systems, he said.
Across the Capitol, the Senate also started revealing its top priorities for the session.
Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters Senate Bill 1 will deal with outlawing so-called “sanctuary cities” that seek to defy federal law enforcement, and SB2 will deal with voter IDs.
Senate Bill 1, Stivers said, “would not allow individuals to ... say, ‘We’re not going to enforce or cooperate as law enforcement with immigration or naturalization agencies.’”
The House convened amid the absence of a key leader — Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney.
House members paused for a moment of silence for the popular Campbellsville Republican, who has been critically ill with pancreatitis. The floor leader manages legislation during debates on the House floor and helps plan the daily legislative agenda. The Senate also recognized Carney and prayed for his continued recovery.
House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade told colleagues Carney won’t return to the Capitol “for some time.” Meade acknowledged the bipartisan outpouring of support for Carney and said it shows that political differences “don’t define us.”
“I ask that you continue to have him in your thoughts and your prayers, as well as his family, as he goes down that path to recovery," Meade said.
Carney has shown improvement in recent days but remains “very sick," his brother told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
The opening day of the 2020 session marked the start of a new era for House Democrats. Rep. Joni Jenkins began her tenure as the top-ranking leader for the chamber's Democrats. She succeeds Rocky Adkins as the House minority floor leader. Adkins ended his decadeslong House career recently when he accepted the job as senior adviser to Beshear.
Beshear predicted Monday that prison reforms also will generate considerable discussion during the legislative session. The governor said the state’s rising corrections costs are unsustainable.