Kentucky Senate sends seven bills to an empty chamber with House out until Monday

02/19/2015 10:30 PM

FRANKFORT — As Kentuckians braced for subzero temperatures Thursday, the state Senate sent seven bills across the Capitol to a chamber that will remain empty until Monday.

Senate President Robert Stivers chided House leaders for clearing their chamber’s legislative schedule this week following a winter storm that dropped more than a foot in some areas.

But echoing a similar statement from House Speaker Greg Stumbo, Stivers said the Senate’s decision to convene the 14th day of the 2015 session will not require amending the current calendar. Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn sine die March 24 after meeting 28 days, two days short of the 30-day limit in odd-year sessions after legislative leaders canceled proceedings Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We can still go through the calendar as it exists,” said Stivers, R-Manchester, adding the Senate “felt necessary to go forward and move pieces of legislation, and we are.”

Every bill presented Thursday eased through the chamber, with senators voting out bills on religious and political freedom of speech in schools, judicial redistricting, increasing coverage of colorectal cancer screenings and other topics.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 49, sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, 31-1 with Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones opposed and one “pass” vote. The bill would require the Kentucky Supreme Court to evaluate the makeup of the state’s circuit and district court districts during years the legislature must take up redistricting and report back to lawmakers by the end of January, and the high court could propose its own redistricting plan if districts are found unbalanced.

Schickel, R-Union, said the judicial branch hasn’t redistricted its court systems in 60 years, leaving courtrooms shouldering disproportionate caseloads.

“Think about if we would sit in our seats today and were still representing the same districts that our predecessors represented 60 years ago,” he said in a floor speech. “It would be completely unacceptable and completely unfair.”

Schickel acknowledged the complexities of redistricting, saying the process is difficult but “necessary if we’re to have equal justice under the law in the commonwealth of Kentucky.” Lawmakers must redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts every decade to account for population shifts identified in the U.S. Census.

The unclear definition of “unbalanced” prompted Sen. Robin Webb to vote “pass” on SB 49.

Webb, D-Grayson, said population alone should not dictate balance between courts with other factors like the types of litigation worthy of consideration.

“I’m sort of for the concept practically because we’ve got judges out there with four counties, we’ve got some judges with not so much,” she said. “But it’s not about population or demographic as much as it is the demographic of the caseloads.”

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 71, which would codify students’ rights to political and religious expression in light of recent court rulings, by 30-4 vote with Democratic Sens. Perry Clark, Denise Harper-Angel, Morgan McGarvey and Gerald Neal opposed.

The legislation “does not expand any rights but simply collects them together so that they are easily referenced by those who have questions — the teachers, administrators, parents and students alike,” said Sen. Albert Robinson, a London Republican and sponsor of SB 71.

Clark, however, called the bill “confusing” and “a solution hunting for a problem.”

McGarvey, too, said SB 71 raises more questions than answers.

“What happens when someone publishes an article which could be deemed offensive or hurtful to other people in their school newspaper?” said McGarvey, D-Louisville.

“… Do the school administrators, as have been held by the courts who act as sort of the publishers in that instance, have any type of control in what goes in front of the student body? Is that something that they should have? I think that’s a question before this body as we decide this today.”


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