Ryland Barton

State Capitol Bureau Reporter

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has 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's reporting 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. 

Ryland has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

White House

Kentucky Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway says he won’t be in Louisville Thursday when President Barack Obama visits the city.  Conway is only the latest Democratic candidate to attempt to avoid being tied to Obama.

Obama is unpopular in Kentucky, and has lost to his rivals here during the last two presidential races. Tying Democrats to the president and his policies has been part of the GOP strategy for the past few years, most recently in last year’s U.S. Senate race. During that campaign, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to say whether she voted for Obama and ended up losing to incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell by a wide margin.

State Democrats like Grimes and Conway have found themselves in the awkward position of opposing the national Democratic platform and courting those who worry that the president’s environmental policies amount to a fatal blow to the already crippled coal industry. Conway has been working on that; in his capacity as Attorney General, he joined a multi-state lawsuit against the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations. Last week, Conway also received an endorsement from the United Mine Workers Association.

Conway will be in eastern Kentucky to discuss anti-drug efforts when Obama talks about the economy on Thursday in Louisville.

Other prominent Democratic candidates will miss Obama's visit this time.

State Auditor Adam Edelen says he will attend a fundraiser in eastern Kentucky. Attorney general candidate Andy Beshear will be meeting with law enforcement to talk about heroin abuse.

Flickr/Creative Commons

The opposing sides of the 2015 beer battle topped the list of lobbying spending during the first two months of the Kentucky General Assembly, according recently released numbers from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

Spending reports only become available a month later because of filing deadlines.

Anheuser-Busch, Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth and Kentucky Beer Wholesalers were among the top-five spenders during the session, dropping a combined $483,830 on lobbying expenses and advertising in January and February.

Anheuser-Busch unsuccessfully fought against a bill that will forbid out-of-state beer brewers from owning distributors in the state. With the backing of craft beer and local distributors, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear in early March.

Both Anheuser-Busch and Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth aired TV and radio advertisements across the state, with AB over doubling KEG’s advertising dollars.

Anheuser-Busch says it will have to close the distributorships it owns in Louisville and Owensboro by the end of this year, but is still “reviewing its legal options,” saying that the law violates the Kentucky and U.S. Constitutions.

About $4.2 million was spent on lobbying in total. Here’s a rundown of the top spenders.

A religious freedom law, similar to the one that has recently drawn national attention in Indiana, has been on the books in Kentucky for two years and is currently being used as an argument to sue the state.

The proprietors of the Ark Encounter project in Northern Kentucky are suing state Tourism Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart and Gov. Steve Beshear for excluding the 500-foot-long Noah’s Ark replica from a tourism tax break.

In the lawsuit, the proprietors of the project, Answers in Genesis, say that the state discriminated against the ministry under the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act by pulling a promised $18 million in tax incentives.

The state withdrew funding, saying that public dollars couldn’t go to a project that hires employees based on religious background.

University of Kentucky law professor Scott Bauries said the religious freedom law allows the plaintiffs to argue that the state discriminated against them.

“Because the state of Kentucky seeks to hold them to a higher standard than what the ordinary anti-discrimination laws would hold them to—and because it doesn’t seek to do that with any non-religious employers—that it’s discriminating against them based on their religion,” Bauries said.

Under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, religious employers are allowed to hire “coreligionists” if doing so furthers the religious purpose of the organization.

An increase in Medicaid services and a decline in the private insurance market in rural Kentucky has hit rural hospitals hard, according to State Auditor Adam Edelen.

More than two-thirds of Kentucky’s rural hospitals are below the national average on a financial strength rating system, and more than one-third are considered to be in poor financial health, according to a report released Monday.

Local governments are already moving to set up needle exchanges just a day after the Kentucky state legislature authorized the programs through a comprehensive heroin bill.

If implemented, drug users would be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones from local public health departments.

Rice Leach, the commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette County Public Health Department, said needle exchanges would stymie the transfer of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

“From a public health point of view it’s a perfect way to reduce the spread of diseases if not managed properly,” Leach said. “And those diseases manage to work their way into the population that does not use drugs.”

Public health departments in Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky have indicated they support needle exchanges and are working with local councils to approve programs.

In a statement, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness said officials were “studying the possibility of local implementation.” The Louisville officials will examine cost, locations and possible partners for an exchange, the department said in a statement.

Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

On the last day of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2015 session, Attorney General Jack Conway called on legislators to pass a bill to deal with the state’s growing heroin problem.

“I hope here on the final day of the legislative session that the legislature gets its act together,” Conway said during a news conference.

So far, lawmakers have been squabbling over differing versions of the bill. A heroin bill died in the final minutes of last year’s session.

Conway, a Democrat who is also running for governor, said the bill should include tougher penalties for major heroin traffickers and more funding for treatment. He also called for a bill that would make an overdose-reversing drug called naloxone more available. His stance is the same as House Democrats.

“Four simple provisions that are relatively non-controversial that need to be passed, that need to be passed by midnight tonight because people are dying, because law enforcement officials are having trouble dealing with the problem and prosecutors need help in trying to rid our streets of this scourge,” Conway said.

A committee headed by Conway and First Lady Jane Beshear has distributed 2,000 naloxone kits to the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Northern Kentucky.

The total cost for the kits is over $100,000. The kits were funded as part of a $32 million settlement between the state and two pharmaceutical companies. The settlement money has also gone to fund nonprofit treatment programs across the state and provide users with “scholarships” to treatment programs.

LRC Public Information

With two working days to go, Kentucky lawmakers still haven’t nailed down legislation to address the state’s growing heroin problem and it’s ailing teachers pension system.

On Friday, legislators from both chambers met for hours, trying to craft compromises on the bills.

A solution is starting to take shape to help shore up the teachers pension system, but the House and Senate remain divided on sentencing guidelines in the heroin bill.

Lawmakers have until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to pass laws.

Heroin

Representatives and senators were still at odds Friday afternoon over needle exchanges, sentencing guidelines for heroin traffickers, and whether to include a “good Samaritan” clause that would provide immunity to those who report heroin overdoses.

Senate President Robert Stivers repeatedly suggested that the committee stop arguing and produce a bill that only includes points that lawmakers agree on: making overdose-reversing drug naloxone more available and increasing funding for treatment programs.

Kentucky LRC

Kentucky lawmakers say they’ve come a long way in coming up with a legislative solution to the state’s heroin epidemic, but no consensus has emerged on the biggest sticking point—how to punish heroin traffickers.

The House wants to keep the state’s current law that gives low-level heroin traffickers lighter prison sentences. The Senate wants strict sentencing across the board.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican and candidate for lieutenant governor, said strict sentencing guidelines would still allow prosecutors to use discretion and provide reduced charges for “peddlers.”

“We believe that we need to trust our prosecutors locally to make these decisions and we trust our prosecutors,” he said.

On Thursday, a conference committee made up of six representatives and six senators attempted to hammer out final details of the bill. To get heroin legislation passed in this session, both the state House and Senate would have to vote on a final version of the bill on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat and author of the House version of the bill, said lawmakers need to “legislate to the bad” prosecutors—to prevent low-level traffickers and addicts from entering the prison system.

Tilley said current law already has tough penalties for traffickers, and he pointed out that low-level drug dealers would receive a Class C felony if they received a second trafficking offense.

Senators also took issue with a House proposal to add $10 million dollars for drug treatment to the bill.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, said House lawmakers need to identify the source for the additional funding.

“I think we all have to take a realistic look: where are those monies coming from,” Stivers asked.

The provision for additional money had been proposed by Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor.

Kentucky LRC

Once-dead legislation that would allow Kentucky restaurants to claim a tax break for charitable food donations has been resurrected in the final days of this year’s legislative session.

The bill would provide restaurants with a tax refund worth 20 percent of the fair market value of food donated to charities.

It’s unclear how much the state would miss in revenue lost from the tax break. Jason Bailey, director for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said that’s a problem.

“The bill has not been heard in committee so there’s been no public discussion on how much it costs and whether it’s worth the lost revenue,” Bailey said. “Any amount if we’re not having an open discussion about it is problematic.

The bill failed to land a committee hearing in the Democratic-led House earlier this year. Now the language has been tacked on to a different bill that is already poised to pass the state legislature.

The Courier-Journal reported that Louisville-based Yum! Brands had pushed for the bill earlier in the session and was responsible for its late revival.

Amber Cronen, intake coordinator with the Hope Center in Lexington, said restaurant donations are readily accepted at her organization.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says he want to “run up the score” in western Kentucky, where he leads a four-person Republican field for governor.

“As Commissioner of Agriculture, I’ve worked very closely with a lot of entrepreneurs and family farmers in Western Kentucky so they know me, they know I can provide the badly needed leadership we need in this state," said Comer. 

Last week’s Bluegrass Poll found Comer was trailing former Louisville Metro Councilman Hal Heiner by eight points statewide.  Comer has a double digit lead over his party opponents in western Kentucky. 

He says he’s the best-equipped candidate to take on presumptive Democratic nominee Jack Conway in the November general election, noting that he outpolled the state attorney general in the 2011 elections for their respective offices.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s $3.3 billion bonding bailout of the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System won’t pass this session, but a smaller study-and-finance package may still be in the works.

The retirement system only has 53 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts to more than 140,000 retired and active teachers in the state. The state’s required contributions to the system will double by 2026, according to KTRS officials.

On Tuesday, the Senate rejected $3.3 billion in bonding for the retirement system proposed by the House, replacing it with language that would require a committee of lawmakers and experts to identify problems in the pension system and come up with a report on possible solutions by December.

Now a conference committee comprised of representatives and senators will try to come up with a compromise to the two proposals.

Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg said the legislature was in a similar situation in 2013 when lawmakers addressed the cousin of the teacher retirement system—the Kentucky Retirement Systems.

“The Senate kind of wanted reforms but it didn’t want to address the pending issue of financial stability and money,” Stumbo said. “We want to make sure that the fund is financially sound, and we’re willing to listen to some of their suggestions on reforms if they’re willing to do something on the financial stability side.”

In that 2013 session, the legislature required the state to make recommended contributions to the KRS, created a separate pension fund for new hires and limited their benefits. The reforms have been considered successful by some, however KRS still only has 21 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts.

Stumbo said bonding should be included in a solution this year because interest rates are favorable. KTRS officials said the state can borrow money at a 4 percent interest rate and a 7 percent return from its investments in the system.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, hasn’t said if he would consider bonding in a final bill. But he said he’s willing to compromise.

Kevin Willis

The Kentucky General Assembly adjourned late Wednesday night for a week and a half while Gov. Steve Beshear considers vetoes—and no bill addressing the state’s rising heroin problems had been passed.

Lawmakers will have two days to pass a final bill: March 23 and 24.

Both chambers have selected members for a conference committee, which will now try to hammer out the final details of a compromise.

Senate President Robert Stivers remains confident that a heroin bill will be finalized over the course of the break.

“I think the discussions when we come back everything would be resolved by that time, because when we get back on the 23rd and 24th I think the die will be cast and hopefully everything will be prepared,” Stivers said.

The starting point of discussion will be a bill sponosored Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat, who has worked with House and Senate leader to come up with a compromise piece of legislation.

“It represents some advancement in the progress that we’ve had in meeting with our Senate counterparts over the last several weeks,” Tilley said during a House Floor speech on Wednesday.

The bill looks a lot like a version the House passed last month: it would punish heroin traffickers with increasing penalties depending on how much of the drug they have, and it would allow local health districts to set up needle exchanges.

Kentucky LRC

The chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee is still confident that something will be done to adjust Kentucky’s gas tax before the legislative session ends.

But the committee chair, Sen. Ernie Harris, said it’s still unclear what a final bill would look like or where it would come from.

“We’ve been talking about it in leadership and in our caucus. We don’t have a resolution yet, we’re not sure the exact direction that we’re going, but I’m confident that we will address it at some time,” said Harris, a Prospect Republican.

Senate Republicans are discussing not allowing the fuel tax to swing by 5 or 10 percent over the course of a year, Harris said. Currently, the gas tax is based on the average wholesale price of gasoline.

The state’s road fund, which funds maintenance and construction on state highway and bridge projects, has been dwindling because low gas prices have led to fewer tax receipts.

Harris had written a bill that would have set a “floor” to the gas tax—meaning the tax rate would stop adjusting once gas prices fell below a certain amount. That legislation was once a likely contender, but Harris said the legislature will not take it up. He said a final bill will depend on leadership of both chambers working together to decide what bill to advance.

Lawmakers have until 11:59 Wednesday evening to pass bills before the governor’s week-and-a-half long veto session—currently there is no fuel tax bill that has passed both the House and Senate. Lawmakers also have an optional two days to pass bills after the veto session.

If nothing is done to adjust the gas tax, local governments stand to lose up to 40 percent of revenue for routine maintenance of roads, Harris said.

“And that’s not just new asphalt—that is potholes, and after the snows that we’ve had you see the potholes cropping up on fairly new-laid asphalt,” Harris said.

The Kentucky state Senate is poised to pass a bill that would restore funds to several programs associated with the 1998 tobacco settlement.

Revenue from the tobacco settlement has flagged as fewer people have bought cigarettes in the state, leading to shortfalls in programs dealing with agriculture, early childhood, cancer research and programs that help people quit smoking.

“It’s what our revenue’s based on and as that goes down, the divisions to each one of those agencies goes down also,” said Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican from Shelbyville who sponsored the bill.

The extra money comes from a new settlement the state made with tobacco companies in 2014. Under the agreement, the state received an additional $110 million in fiscal year 2014 and over the next three years will receive $57.2 million more than the state had budgeted to receive from the tobacco settlement.

The bill also ensures that the money from the settlement can only be appropriated by the legislature. Last year Gov. Steve Beshear used the money to restore $42.5 million in budget cuts to lung cancer research, agriculture and other health assistance.

Several Senate Republicans suggested that Beshear’s use of the funds was a breach of power and that budget appropriations should be left to the legislature.

Kentucky LRC

The $3.3 billion bonding bill to bail out the state’s ailing teachers retirement fund is dead.

Senate President Robert Stivers on Tuesday stripped the bonding provision from the bill, saying that more time needed to be spent studying and fixing the system before any money was added to the Kentucky Teacher Retirement System.

“There are systemic changes that need to be made in KTRS before we can make it actuarially sound and viable in perpetuity,” Stivers said during a floor speech on Tuesday.

Now if enacted, the bill would set up a committee of lawmakers and hire an independent think tank to study KTRS’ predicament and potential solutions.

The teacher’s pension system only has 53 percent of the money it needs to make future payouts to about 141,000 retired teachers. Earlier this year, KTRS officials said that if the the bonds isn’t issued, the state’s required contributions to the system will double by 2026.

“I just think we’re kicking the can down the road, we’re at historic low interest rates that are available to us,” said Sen. Dorsey, Ridley, a Henderson Democrat. “I think we’re missing an opportunity.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Prestonsburg Democrat, was noticeably noncritical of Stivers’ decision to remove bonding from the bill. But he still emphasized the need to take advantage of low interest rates on bonding.

“That’s not a bad plan but we just can’t let it go too long where we lose this opportunity to bond to see if we’re going to use bonds,” Stumbo said.

Local Option Sales Tax

After garnering a two-thirds majority vote in the state House, it looks like the local option sales tax bill isn’t going to even get a committee hearing in the Senate.

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