Legislature to watch


A person walks up the ice covered step of the Kentucky State Capitol on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff.

Haley Simpkins

The Kentucky legislature has been busy since resuming session on Feb. 2, introducing a number of bills and continuing impeachment proceedings against Gov. Andy Beshear.

The legislature has also wrapped up business from the first half of its session, when the legislature passed several bills to restrict the governor’s authority to respond during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor later vetoed six of these bills. Both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to override vetoes, making bills like a limit on executive orders and expiry date on administrative regulations into law.

Aside from COVID-19 related bills, there were also several other large impact bills on the record, ranging anywhere from dealing with animal cruelty to protections for student journalists.

House Bill 57

Sponsored primarily by Rep. Chris Freeland, this bill focuses on making all violations of torturing a cat or dog a Class D felony, a change from the current Class A misdemeanor classification.

The bill also adds specific definitions for torture against a dog or cat and expands it to include instances of neglect or abandonment. The bill also adds that each act of torture can constitute a separate offense. The only exception under this bill would be if someone was killing or injuring a dog without the intent to cause harm, such as self-defense in the case of an attack.

Shortly after the bill was introduced, it picked up steam due to the heart-breaking case of Ethan, the dog who lived. Ethan was found abandoned in a parking lot on Jan. 29 and was rescued by the Kentucky Humane Society. He was severely starved, leading to a loss of muscle mass and inability to walk. He has since gained both weight and a following on social media. With more than 20 pounds gained, Ethan is on the road to recovery and the Kentucky Humane Society reported that he is “in a very playful mood.”

The Kentucky Humane Society also praised Freeland and his co-sponsors on the bill in a post on Feb. 8.

“We want to thank State Rep. Chris Freeland for sponsoring House Bill 57, which seeks to expand the definition of animal torture to include intentional gross neglect/abandonment. The bill currently has 39 co-sponsors, both Republicans and Democrats,” the post reads.

The bill is currently pending action by the House Committee on Committees.

Senate Bill 120

Senate Bill 120 was introduced as a way to legalize histroical horse racing in Kentucky, which proponents said was necessary to preserve a key industry of the state.

These slot-like machines use previous races to allocate winnings. Their legality has been in doubt in the last year, when the Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that at least one brand of the machine was not parimutuel, and therefore illegal under Kentucky’s Constitution on gambling.

However, the court opinion on the case also stated that the justices understood the importance of the industry to the Commonwealth, and they suggested a route to preserve these historical horse racing machines.

“If a change, however, in the long-accepted definition of parimutuel wagering is to be made, that change must be made by the people of this Commonwealth through their duly-elected legislators, not by an appointed administrative body and not by the judiciary,” the opinion reads.

Senate Bill 120 does just that with its primary use being to define pari-mutuel wagering in a way that would include historical horse racing.

Many in the horse racing industry were concerned that a ban on gambling would put them out of business. Red Mile in Lexington was forced to close.

“I cannot imagine a more dangerous time to cripple this industry. I cannot imagine sitting here today and voting to put more families on unemployment,” said Rep. Matthew Koch.

The bill passed the Senate with a pretty narrow 22-15 vote and headed to the House for discussion on Wednesday.

House representatives passed the bill on Thursday 55 – 38 to the great relief of Kentucky’s horse racing companies, who said they expect Beshear to sign it into law.

Amendments to raise the tax on historical horse racing to 3.5 percent were withdrawn or ruled out of order. According to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, gambling in the industry provides $60 million to Kentucky’s General Fund every year, and some legislators pushed to increase that amount in light of increased need for aid due to the pandemic.

House Bill 273

This bill, known as the Bailey Holt-Preston Cope Victims Privacy Act, focuses on the exclusion of photos or videos of deaths, killings, rape and sexual assault from the Kentucky Open Records Act.

However, the bill does state that those involved in what is depicted in the material can choose to release the records.

The bill is named in memory of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, the 15-year-old victims of the Marshall County High School shooting in 2018. This name choice came after Commonwealth Attorneys in Marshall County and the victims’ families were concerned a video that they were aware of from the shooting may be released to the public, said Rep. Chris Freeland, a sponsor of the bill, in a news release.

This bill was unanimously passed by the House during last year’s session but was stalled from further voting as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill has once again passed the house and has now moved to the Senate for full consideration.

House Bill 187

A major focus of this bill, known as the New Voices Act, is to establish additional protections for student journalists and media advisers at public high schools.

“It is the intent of the General Assembly to restore and protect freedom of expression through school-sponsored media for public high school students and the jobs of the teachers who appropriately support these rights, in order to encourage students to become educated, informed, and responsible members of society,” the bill reads.

The bill states that students or media advisers should not be disciplined for media that doesn’t meet one of the exceptions outlined in the bill, such as libelous or slanderous media. It also calls on local school districts to establish a written policy to protect student journalists’ freedoms, establishes a time, place, and manner for how student media should be distributed, and establishes that student media speech is not representative of the school’s perspective.

The bill is currently pending action by the House Committee on Committees.

The 2021 Session of the Kentucky Legislature is set to conclude March 30.