A bill to expressly prohibit sexual harassment by legislators and lobbyists was one of many bills that failed to become law in the 2020 legislative session that was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the reasons for its failure in the Senate remain unclear.
Among the other dead bills were measures to allow school districts to install cameras on school buses to catch passing violators, and smooth the tricky process of transporting minors between medical facilities.
Many bills never even got a hearing, including one that would have allowed the Frankfort Plant Board to conduct noncompetitive negotiations for purchase of electric power.
A history of sexual harassment complaints by legislative staff prompted House Bill 168, which would have amended the legislative code of ethics to prohibit sexual harassment by legislators or lobbyists.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Derrick Graham of Frankfort told The State Journal in an email, “I proudly co-sponsored this bill, and was also proud that, for the second year in a row, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor. For some reason, however, the state Senate chose not to pass this provision, although no one in that chamber has ever explained why. We will keep trying, however, and hopefully we can get this passed in 2021.”
After the bill passed the House, Senate leaders assigned it to the State and Local Government Committee, chaired by Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder. He said in an email to The State Journal, “There were some Senate members who had questions regarding the new definitions contained in the bill and were not comfortable handling that section this session.”
The only Senate Republican leader on the committee is Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown. Asked if he was one of the senators who had problems with the bill, he didn’t answer directly:
“We don’t discuss, in our 29-member caucus, who is for and who is against bills. We had legal opinion that some of the way the definition was originally written was a problem, so we went as far as we could this session and we will continue to look at the issue moving forward, but we passed a pretty strong ethics bill for both the executive and legislative branch.”
Asked if the original bill needed support from a majority of the Republican caucus to bring it to the Senate floor, Thayer said, “I’m not going to get into details about on why we hear bills and why we don’t.” In an earlier interview, he said, "We put most of the elements of 168 into the Senate bill that passed."
That was a Schroder measure, Senate Bill 157, that originally dealt only with ethics of the executive branch. To it, his committee and the Senate added several other provisions from the House bill, including a “sexual and workplace harassment training course” that all legislators must attend, and language that Schroder said clarified and aligned the legislative ethics code with the practices of the Legislative Ethics Commission.
But the House bill’s specific prohibition of sexual harassment was not included. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said she was “not part” of what happened in the Senate.
Moser said the House could have put the sexual-harassment language into Schroder’s bill after it passed the Senate and came across the Capitol, “but the Senate would not have concurred, and we would have been left without any of it. It was obviously not something I wanted to happen, but some movement forward on a legislative ethics law is better than none.”
Moser vowed to keep trying. “This was the third year that I had worked on this bipartisan effort,” she said, adding that she would “work on this again next year, as defining harassment behavior is important in creating a safe and respectful workplace for all.”
Other bills that didn’t make it:
SB 205 would have allowed parents or someone they choose to take a child to a hospital or psychiatric facility with permission of admitting and receiving facilities, and require the transfer to be completed.
Dr. Tyler Corey of Frankfort Regional Medical Center, accompanied by hospital CEO Reed Hammond, told a legislative committee that under current law, if the child is being transported by emergency medical services and the child asks to be let out of the vehicle, they must be let out, and the original treatment facility is liable for anything that happens, so EMS won’t transport these children.
The bill passed the Senate 31-0 but was never assigned to a House committee. It reached the House on March 19, the day legislative leaders decided to cut the session short.
HB 34 would have allowed school districts to use third-party vendors to install cameras on the stop arm of school buses to catch violators who unlawfully pass buses and raise the maximum fine for the first offense.
As part of a deal with vendors, the installation wouldn’t have cost the school system’s anything up front. Vendors would issue citations and collect the money, and get a percentage of the revenue.
“I hope this is another one that passes next year,” said Graham, who voted for the bill.
HB 27 would have given the honorary title “official pets of the Commonwealth of Kentucky” to any dogs and cats in or adopted from Kentucky animal shelters. The idea from 7-year-old Ethan Branscum of Frankfort, who thought it would encourage people to adopt shelter animals.
HB 247 would have enabled noncompetitive negotiation for purchase or sale of wholesale electric power or natural gas by a local public agency and would exempt contracts for local public agencies and require them to take out newspaper advertisement for bids for purchase or sale costing more than $30,000.
Voters get bill on court officers’ terms
A major bill that passed on the final day of the session proposes a constitutional amendment to lengthen the terms of county attorneys and district judges from four to eight years beginning in 2022, and commonwealth's attorneys from six years to eight years in 2030. It would also require new district judges to be licensed attorneys for eight years, not the current two years.
The bill was touted as a necessary step that is needed before the politically complicated task of redrawing judicial boundaries can be accomplished. “We have a lot of judicial inefficiencies; we need to re-circuit,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, a former executive director of the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
“If we have the commonwealth’s attorneys at six years, and the circuit judges at eight-year terms, it makes re-circuiting very difficult,” he said, adding that the bill “would align the district judges’ terms with all the other judges.” He also said it would help evenly distribute caseloads which are currently lopsided.
Graham said he favors the amendment “because it will also lengthen the time district judges in the future have to be a practicing attorney. That extra legal experience, I think, will be a big help.”