Kentucky GOP hails ‘successful’ session, but lawsuits loom

March 31, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican Gov. Matt Bevin declared it “the most successful legislative session in history.”

But as Kentucky’s senators and representatives gaveled their lawmaking effort to a close Thursday, the legacy of the 2017 session remained in flux. Key pieces of the GOP agenda must now hold up in court.

Already, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging a new law requiring women to get ultrasounds before having abortions. A Fayette County school board member is talking about challenging the new law allowing charter schools. And Democratic state Rep. Sannie Overly warned of legal challenges to GOP requirements that people post bonds when appealing zoning decisions.

“Do I expect potential lawsuits related to issues? Without a doubt, there will be. There always is,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said. “It’s still a very successful session.”

It was successful for the top lobbying organizations. For January and February, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce spent more than $88,000 to influence lawmakers, a 19 percent jump from last year, and won new laws banning mandatory union dues and allowing for lower wages on public construction projects.

The chamber spent some of that money on ads promoting charter schools and expert panels to review medical malpractice claims. Both issues faltered midway through the session before ultimately passing the Republican-controlled legislature.

House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins said there is “no question” Republicans were beholden to the chamber and conservative groups including the Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity, founded by billionaires David and Charles Koch.

“A lot of this agenda did come from out-of-state special interests, corporate interests and mainly from the Koch brothers,” Adkins said. “Anytime you squeeze the pocketbook of the middle class and you basically put hardworking, everyday blue-collar working families across Kentucky into having to conserve because their wages have been driven down, in my opinion that weakens the economy.”

Chamber spokeswoman Ashli Watts said the chamber represents thousands of businesses, advocates for hundreds of bills and is proud to be “a leading voice in the legislative process.”

Records show Americans for Prosperity spent more than $12,000 lobbying the legislature in the session’s first two months, putting them behind at least 23 other lobbying organizations, according to the Legislative Ethics Commission. Kentucky AFP state director Julia Crigler said the new laws were the result of “a new majority finally getting their shot after decades spent on the sidelines.”

“This isn’t about partisan politics, it’s about enacting good policy,” she said.

Republicans say their agenda is already paying off. Lawmakers approved a bill to give online retailer Amazon a $3 million tax break to help lure a cargo hub to northern Kentucky that is expected to create 2,700 jobs.

On Thursday, state officials revealed Kentucky is vying against another state for a $1.3 billion investment that could create up to 500 full-time jobs in struggling eastern Kentucky. Lawmakers gave Bevin permission to borrow up to $15 million to lure that company, which officials have declined to identify.

Stivers credited both opportunities with legislature passing a “right-to-work” law that bans mandatory union dues. Opponents say the law is designed to weaken labor unions to make it easier for corporate bosses to enrich themselves. But Republicans say Kentucky needed to pass the law to attract jobs because every other southern state had done so.

“Unless you create the environment for having jobs, then you are not going to create jobs,” he said.