Price on Politics: the Kentucky 2023 Regular Legislative Session

Price Wilborn, Commentary Editor

The Kentucky General Assembly gaveled out of the 2023 Regular Legislative Session on the afternoon of March 30 following 30 days of contentious debate amongst legislators and amongst the public.

This session included some good, some bad and a whole lot of ugly. Nearly 175 bills became law this session, according to the Legislative Research Commission. I have chosen a handful of important bills to discuss in greater detail, ones that will have large impacts on the commonwealth.

Senate Bill 150: Anti-Transgender Youth

Senate Bill 150 is the most controversial bill passed by the General Assembly during this session. This bill, sponsored by Senator Max Wise, who represents part of Warren County and is Kelly Craft’s running mate in the 2023 gubernatorial election, has been called an anti-transgender youth bill, imposing some of the harshest restrictions on the transgender community in the nation.

The bills provisions include: the outlawing of gender-affirming surgery and puberty blockers for minors; not requiring teachers to refer to students as their preferred pronoun and name if it does not match what is on the student’s birth certificate; the requirement of parental consent “prior to a well-being questionnaire or assessment, or a health screening from being given to a child for research purposes;” ensuring that no child “receive[s] any instruction or presentation that has a goal or purpose of students studying or exploring gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation;” giving parents – not school boards – the rights to review and approve any courses  “on the subject of human sexuality;” and preventing transgender students from using bathrooms other than those of their biological sex.

Governor Andy Beshear vetoed the bill on March 24. In his veto message, Governor Beshear said that SB 150 takes away the rights of parents to make healthcare decisions for their children, “turns educators and administrators into investigators that must listen in on student conversations and question parents and families about how students behave and/or refer to themselves and others” and puts the children of Kentucky in danger.

The state legislature voted to override the governor’s veto of the bill on March 29, making the bill law. On the day of the override, Kentuckians from all over the commonwealth descended on the State Capitol Building to protest the upcoming override. Upon the General Assembly’s override, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky denounced the legislature’s actions and promised to take the bill to court, hoping to get it stricken down.

I have lived in Kentucky my entire life, so I love this state. Bills like SB 150, however, make me ashamed to be a Kentuckian and make me ashamed of the General Assembly. For years, Republicans in the state legislature have limited the future of all Kentuckians, from education bills to abortion and now to this.

During debate on a similar bill in Iowa, that state’s Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said that “kids are going to kill themselves because of this law. Children will die if this becomes law.” The same is true in Kentucky. In the governor’s veto message, Beshear cited a “2022 National Survey on LGBTQ youth mental health” in which it was found that “45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and nearly 1 in 5 transgender youth attempted suicide.”

Allowing the care, respect and basic human decency to transgender youth in the commonwealth is a no-brainer. The General Assembly should be working to provide these things to all Kentuckians, not just the children of those who agree with the Kentucky GOP’s stance on this bill. Every child deserves to feel at home in Kentucky. Kentucky should be a state that protects and preserves the futures of all while welcoming all who wish to call this commonwealth home. 

Instead, the General Assembly has yet again chosen to take a step backward. Instead of being a model of inclusion for the nation, Kentucky has become a model of what not to do. The General Assembly takes good, meaningful strides in areas like those discussed below, but each time it does this, it takes a large, painful step back.

Senate Bill 9 and House Bill 262: Stricter penalties for hazing and DUI

Two refreshing pieces of legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor were Senate Bill 9 and House Bill 262.

SB 9, called Lofton’s Law, defines hazing in statute and makes first degree hazing a Class D felony, punishable with one to five years imprisonment. Lofton’s Law is named in honor of Lofton Hazelwood, a freshman at the University of Kentucky who lost his life in 2021 after being coerced into drinking 18 shots of hard liquor at a fraternity event.

HB 262, called Lily’s Law, increases penalties for drunk driving in the commonwealth. The law creates vehicular homicide in statute, defining it as when someone causes the death of another while “under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance, or other substance which impairs driving ability.” Vehicular homicide is made a Class B felony, punishable with ten to 20 years imprisonment. Lily’s Law is named after Lily Fairfield, who was killed in a DUI crash in 2021.

These bills were supported in both houses of the General Assembly by members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. At the signing of the bills, Governor Beshear said that “These families have experienced the unimaginable, and today we not only stand with them to lift up their beautiful children – children of God who were taken far too soon – we stand with them in making changes that can help save other Kentuckians.”

Senate Bill 47: Medical Cannabis

After years of intense debate and discussion, medical cannabis is going to be legal in Kentucky. Governor Beshear signed Senate Bill 47 into law on March 31. According to a press release from the Governor’s Office on the signing of SB 47, the law does not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2025, but “the Governor’s executive order remains in effect, allowing those suffering from some medical conditions the ability to obtain medical cannabis out of state until that time.”

SB 47 outlines the process for growing medical cannabis in the commonwealth, outlawing home growing but defining the process for the creation of regulations leading up to the January 2025 implementation date, with many deadlines for regulations and system creation being in 2024. Marijuana Moment provided a good breakdown of the bill, its provisions and what it will be doing leading up to and upon going into effect.

This comes after action by Governor Beshear last year working to increase access to medical cannabis to Kentuckians. In April 2022, Beshear announced the creation of the Team Kentucky Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee. The committee traveled across the commonwealth, listening to Kentuckians voice their opinions on the issue. After holding four town hall meetings, the committee wrote a report to the Governor, detailing what was heard from the public. Following the committee’s report, the Governor issued two executive orders helping to increase access to medical cannabis in Kentucky.

Following the passage of SB 47, Kentucky is set to become the 38th state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, and it is beyond past time. Kentuckians are struggling with pain. These Kentuckians are suffering with medical issues many of us cannot begin to comprehend. They are not looking to get high, they are just looking to get well and to live normal lives that are free of pain.

The Kentucky General Assembly has taken a much needed step to help these Kentuckians begin to lead lives that are freer of pain and are just like the rest of us. This was a good step for Kentucky to take, and it is going to help thousands across the commonwealth.

House Bill 551: Sports Betting

After years of debate, sports betting is finally going to be legal in Kentucky, to the great benefit of the commonwealth and Kentuckians. House Bill 551 was passed with just two votes more than the needed 23 votes in the Senate, sending it to Governor Beshear’s desk to be signed.

HB 551 creates a system for sports betting in the commonwealth that includes taxes to be collected by the state and for state agencies to create further regulations on sports betting. According to the Courier Journal, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer “said HB 551 would bring in an estimated $23 million annual tax revenue directed to the state’s public pension system, adding that Tennessee’s sports betting law brought in $68 million of revenue last year.”

The bill had bipartisan support, with all seven of the Senate’s Democrats voting for the bill. Upon signing, Governor Beshear tweeted “after years of urging lawmakers to legalize sports betting, we finally did it! […] Kentuckians will soon be able to place their bets here, and for the first time, we are going to keep those dollars to support our roads and bridges, schools and communities.”

Sports betting is going to greatly help Kentucky bring in more revenue, further helping to improve the lives of Kentuckians in all corners of the commonwealth. Like medical marijuana, sports betting will be regulated to provide Kentucky with more revenue, further building on the massive economic growth the commonwealth has seen since Beshear took office in December 2019.

HB 551 was a good step forward. Again, however, with every step forward, Kentucky seems to take a massive step back. SB 150 is going to hurt. It is going to hurt the most vulnerable of Kentucky’s population because some GOP lawmakers were made uncomfortable by their mere existence.

Kentucky should be a place where all are welcome and all are provided for. Instead of putting walls up like the General Assembly has done, it should be tearing them down. Sports betting, medical marijuana and tougher hazing and DUI penalties are all important pieces of legislation that will have lasting effects, but SB 150 has driven Kentucky back decades in time.

I’m proud to be a Kentuckian when Kentucky makes strides that help all of its citizens. It did this during the 2023 Regular Legislative Session, but it also took a large, painful step backwards that is going to hurt for years to come.

If Kentucky wants to be a national leader, the state needs to begin caring for all its citizens and for the future of the commonwealth. If it doesn’t Kentucky will never be able to break out of the overwhelming pain and backwardness that it has dug itself into.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.

If you would like to submit a reaction to a piece, Letter to the Editor or other submission, please send it to commentary editor Price Wilborn at [email protected] or [email protected].