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The state legislature would have the power to determine which felony offenses would qualify for voting rights restoration under a constitutional amendment approved by the Senate on Monday.

At present, the state constitution only allows a governor to restore the right to vote for those who have been convicted of a felony.

If the House and Gov. Matt Bevin also approve of the bill, a majority of Kentuckians would have to vote in favor of the measure in a referendum in November for the amendment to become law.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and the amendment’s sponsor, said it would allow the legislature to be more flexible in the restoration process.

“Give us the authority, then we can define it,” he said. “If we need to reel it in, we can reel it in. If we need to expand it, we can expand it.”

Voting rights restoration bills have been proposed for well over a decade in the General Assembly. A proposal that passed the state House earlier this year would have automatically restored voting rights to Kentuckians who had finished serving time for certain nonviolent felonies.

Senate President Expects Budget Vote Soon

Mar 21, 2016
LRC Public Information

The leader of the Kentucky Senate says he’s anticipating a vote on the state budget Tuesday or Wednesday. But, Senate President Robert Stivers is concerned about leaving enough time to pass a spending plan.

House Democratic leaders initially proposed to borrow more than $3 billion to help resolve the state’s pension debts, but later rescinded that recommendation.  Stivers says that change removed at least one area of debate. “I think it was a move that was, by far, more fiscally responsible to put more monies into the pension plans than to try to bond it,” said Stivers.

Although much of Governor Bevin’s spending recommendations are included in the democratic house budget, there are also many changes. For instance, the house restored funding to higher education.

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The state House of Representatives approved a bill on Friday that would create a new class of criminal punishment called “gross misdemeanor.”

Included in the new category would be three crimes that are currently Class D felonies: flagrant non-support (not paying child support), second degree forgery and second degree criminal possession of a forged instrument.

Rep. Lew Nicholls, a Democrat from Greenup, said people who commit those crimes shouldn’t be charged with felonies, which could hinder future opportunities.

“Once they get a felony record, then that really creates a bad problem for them in trying to get a job for the rest of their lives,” he said.

LRC Public Information

Some Kentuckians with felony convictions would be eligible to have their voting rights restored under a bill that a Senate committee approved on Wednesday.

The bill would allow Kentuckians to vote on whether to give the legislature authority to determine which felony crimes would be eligible.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and sponsor of the bill, said previous attempts to restore voting rights have gone about the process wrong.

“The bills that I felt had come before us about restoration of civil rights were not appropriately taken because we, as the General Assembly, did not have the authority per our constitution to do that,” he said.

Currently, only the governor can restore voting rights to those with felony convictions.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

After a five-hour debate, the state House of Representatives approved a budget bill on Wednesday. All 53 House Democrats voted in favor of the bill, while all 47 Republicans abstained.

The measure would restore cuts to K-12 and higher education made under Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget. It also would increase the state’s contribution to the teacher retirement system by taking money Bevin set aside for future contributions to the woefully underfunded pension systems.

The bill now heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it’s expected to change.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said the budget was an “education statement” by the House.

“I’d rather have the vote saying, ‘I voted in favor of restoring those cuts, I voted in favor of reducing the debt, I voted in favor of making sure the pension systems were sound, and I voted in favor of not letting the governor have a $500 million slush fund,’” he said.

johnwaynesmith.org

The embattled former director of a school for at-risk youth remains in the race for the Kentucky House of Representatives. 

John Wayne Smith of Warren County was convicted in federal court last month.  Smith is a Democrat from Smiths Grove who is challenging Brownsville Republican incumbent Michael Meredith.

Smith was found guilty of failing to report allegations that two teenage girls had been sexually abused by another staff member at the Bluegrass Challenge Academy where he served as the director.  The Fort Knox-based academy is a quasi-military school for students at-risk of not finishing high school. 

Smith will be sentenced May 19 and faces up to a year in prison and fines.  In an email to WKU Public Radio Wednesday, Smith said at this time, he remains in the contest.  House Republican leaders have called on him to exit the race before his sentencing.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed again Wednesday to block President Obama's Supreme Court nomination, saying the American people should have a "voice" in the process. 

"It is a president's constitutional right to nominate a Supreme Court justice, and it is the Senate's constitutional right to act as a check on a president and withhold its consent," McConnell said on the Senate floor following the president's nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland.

In his remarks earlier in the day, President Obama had called for the Senate to put politics aside and confirm Garland. Obama praised Garland's collegiality and ability to build consensus, saying "he's shown a rare ability to bring together odd couples."

A Supreme Court nomination, Obama said, is "supposed to be above politics, it has to be, and should stay that way."

LRC Public Information

A new version of the state budget, penned by Kentucky House Democrats, reverses some of Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed cuts to state spending.

But for the most part, the bill upholds the governor’s proposal for a 9 percent reduction in spending over the next two years and 4.5 percent reduction this year.

The budget passed out of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Tuesday evening.

Notably, the proposal does not include a bond to shore up the state’s ailing pension systems, which has long been a proposal of House Democrats and anathema to Republicans in the Capitol.

The new proposal does alter the central fixture of Bevin’s plan — diverting $500 million from the Public Employees Health Insurance Fund and saving it for the pension systems down the road. Democrats instead proposed skipping the middle man and putting the excess funds directly into the Kentucky Teachers Retirement Systems.

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Kentucky businesses could invoke their religious beliefs to refuse service to gay, lesbian or transgender customers under a bill approved by the state Senate.

The measure passed the Republican-led Senate on a 22-16 vote Tuesday. It’s a response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer that effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

Republican Sen. Albert Robinson said his bill seeks to protect businesses from civil damages and legal fees for refusing to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations due to conscientious objections.

Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas said the bill promotes “bigotry and hatred.”

Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, told The Courier-Journal the bill is “extremely dangerous.”

“If anything, this encourages people to discriminate,” he said.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

President Obama's choice to serve as the newest Supreme Court justice is Merrick Garland, a moderate federal appeals court judge and former prosecutor with a reputation for collegiality and meticulous legal reasoning.

Garland, who has won past Republican support, has "more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in history," a White House official said. "No one is better suited to immediately serve on the Supreme Court."

Garland is the latest judge from the federal appeals court in Washington to be promoted to the current Supreme Court. If confirmed, he would join Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas, all of whom served on the D.C. appeals court before being elevated. So did the late Antonin Scalia, who died last month after nearly 30 years on the nation's highest court.

LRC Public Information

The Kentucky House is expected to vote on its version of the state budget as early as Tuesday. 

In the six years Representative Michael Meredith has been in Frankfort, a budget has been passed by a Democratic governor and House.  The Brownsville Republican says this budget process is interesting to watch.

"This year will be really different because you have a Republican governor sending a budget to the House.  the House is going to have a totally different budget, I think, and send that to the Republican Senate that will do something totally different than the what the Democratic House did," Meredith told WKU Public Radio.  "I think the reconciliation through the conference committee process is going to be really interesting to see how that all works."

The House budget restores some of the cuts proposed by Governor Matt Bevin.  He wants to reallocate $650 million in government spending to address the state's pension obligations.

Rae Hodge

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo says his chamber’s version of the state budget will likely include no cuts to higher education in the current fiscal year. 

Speaker Stumbo said Friday that he could almost assure there will be no cuts this fiscal year to any universities in the House budget.  The Courier-Journal reports the Democratic leader made the comment shortly before lawmakers went into session.  Stumbo went on to say that the goal of his chamber would be to restore all proposed cuts to higher education and public school programs. 

Republican Governor Matt Bevin’s proposed budget would make 4.5 percent cuts to universities this year and reduce state funding by nine percent in the next two years.  Bevin argued the cuts are necessary to help make up a shortfall in the state pension system. 

House lawmakers will vote on their version of the budget early next week.  Governor Bevin has said that he will not sign any budget that includes more debt.

LRC Public Information

A state Senate committee unanimously approved a bill on Thursday that would set deadlines for law enforcement to test sexual assault kits.

An investigation from former state Auditor Adam Edelen’s office last year showed there are more than 3,000 untested rape kits in the state, and 41 percent of Kentucky law enforcement agencies don’t submit all kits to the state crime lab.

The bill would require hospitals to submit sexual assault kits to law enforcement within 24 hours of collecting evidence. Local law enforcement would have 30 days to submit the kits to the state crime lab. The crime lab would then have 90 days to analyze the evidence by 2018 and 60 days by 2020.

The legislation also requires that those who complete sexual assault kits be notified of the progress of the testing.

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A bill that would forbid owning, training or selling a dog to be used for dogfighting has passed a House committee.

Kentucky already outlaws dogfighting, a class D felony. The House legislation would also make it a class D felony to own, train or sell a dog for dogfighting.

Jefferson County prosecutor Susan Jones said the current state law isn’t effective enough.

“Without eyewitness testimony or a confession, it’s very difficult to actually prove that the animals were being fought,” Jones said.

The legislation differs from a Senate anti-dogfighting bill — supported by hunters organizations — that would require prosecutors to prove that a dog’s “primary purpose” was for dogfighting.

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After years of efforts, a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Kentucky received its first legislative hearing on Wednesday, but it failed to advance the House Judiciary Committee by one vote.

The bill would have replaced the death penalty with life without parole.

“We have tried to perfect the system, but human beings are flawed and we make mistakes,” said Rep. David Floyd, a Republican from Bardstown and the bill’s sponsor. “When the state imposes a death penalty it will never be perfect, it never will be so and we have to acknowledge that.”

Kentucky has executed three people since it reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Joe Gutmann, a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Jefferson County, said he used to argue capital punishment cases but lost faith in the process.

“The fact that an innocent person could have been killed in carrying out a death sentence proves the stakes being so irrevocably high that our law must be changed,” Gutmann said.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 156 people sentenced to death in America since 1973 have been acquitted, had charges dismissed or pardoned.

About two-thirds of Kentuckians support capital punishment, according to a Bluegrass Poll from 2013.

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