School choice, felon voting rights and governor pardons: A breakdown of proposed constitutional amendments

Published 12:23 pm Monday, February 19, 2024

This November, Kentucky voters will flock to the polls to elect the next U.S. President, as well as a host of state and local representatives.

There will also be a few other questions on the ballot, asking voters if they would like to change Kentucky’s constitution in one way or another.

Right now, state legislators are fighting to pass their proposed constitutional amendments, for a chance to fill one of four available slots.

Senate President Robert Stivers said that at the end of session, leaders from both chambers will sit down to decide which two each side really wants, but that “you don’t want to limit your options by shutting down the process.”

What do these proposed amendments entail, and how far have they gotten in the legislative process?

Senate Bill 10: Changing election years

For decades, Kentucky has been one of few states to hold elections for governor and constitutional officers in a different year than the U.S. presidential election.

The initial switch to odd-numbered years in the mid-1800s arose out of a desire to have an election solely focused on state issues, without “allowing national issues to infiltrate,” Louisville Democratic Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong said in a committee meeting discussing SB10.

However, Sen. Christian McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, has been trying to re-align governor election and presidential election years for about a decade.

His proposed amendment would move gubernatorial elections to presidential years beginning in 2032. Those elected in 2027 would serve one-time, five-year terms.

McDaniel said that it would save Kentuckians from an extra year of political ads and money. According to a fiscal note, the estimated cost savings of the change would be $20 million for local governments during the eliminated election year, and $1.9 million for the state.

He said his “common sense measure” would “dramatically increase” the turnout for a governor election, since a higher number of voters are motivated by the presidential race.

SB10 passed the Senate 26-9.

Senate Bill 23: Freezing property assessments

Sen. Michael Nemes, R-Shepherdsville, is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment that would freeze property assessments for the permanant residences of Kentuckians 65 or older.

“Older residents on a fixed income struggle as is since they grapple with a fluctuating economy in the golden years,” Nemes said. “The fiscal impact to the state would be negligible but it may mean the difference in keeping the heat on or not for some of our elderly residents.”

Impacted Kentuckians would still pay property taxes, and property assessments of any non-permanent residences would continue to increase. The frozen assessments do not transfer to heirs.

SB23 passed the Senate with 32 yes votes, two no votes and one pass vote last week.

Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, was one of the nos.

“A lot of these local taxes go to support our schools and libraries, and so for that reason, although I respect the sponsor’s intent, I personally vote no today,” West said.

Senate Bill 143: Banning non-citizens from voting

While the Kentucky Constitution already presumably includes a citizenship requirement to vote, several Republicans want to make that extra clear.

The current Constitution states that “every citizen of the United States of the age of eighteen years who has resided in the state one year, and in the county six months, and the precinct in which he offers to vote sixty days next preceding the election, shall be a voter…”

Currently, the only exceptions are convicted felons and those declared “mentally incompetent” in a court of law.

Murray Republican Sen. Jason Howell would add another explicit exception for non-U.S. citizens.

Howell said that his motivation comes from California. In 2016, San Francisco voters adopted Proposition N, which added noncitizens who were parents or guardians of children under 19 as eligible voters in school board elections.

A California court recently upheld that proposition and voting right.

“This would close that window down the line to where only U.S. citizens will be allowed to vote in state and local elections,” Howell said.

SB143 passed the Senate 31-4.

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Bowling Green, sponsored mirror legislation in the House, which passed 81-15. This will likely speed up the process for this legislation.

Senate Bill 126: Limiting pardon power

After a series of controversial, last-minute pardons by outgoing Republican Governor Matt Bevin in 2019, including convicted rapists and murderers, Sen. McDaniel wants to limit that power.

SB126 would amend the Kentucky Constitution to ban pardons and commutations in the two-month period beginning 30 days before a gubernatorial election and ending on Inauguration Day.

“I think that it is imperative to the foundational issues of justice in the Commonwealth that one individual not be able to short circuit the entirety of the justice system, from the frontline police officer who makes an arrest to the Supreme Court of the land, who in a sentence of the condemned to death is the final adjudicator,” McDaniel said.

“That power should not rest in one person who will never again stand accountable in front of voters.”

After committee approval, SB126 is set for a floor vote this week.

House Bill 4: Loosening legislative schedule rules

In 2022, 53% of Kentuckians voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the General Assembly to call itself into session and change its end date.

Rep. David Osborne, R-Prospect, was not deterred. He filed HB4 this year, which would make the exact same changes.

Under the proposed amendment, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House—which is Osborne, currently—can agree to call the General Assembly into session. They would be limited to two additional sessions for a combined total of 12 legislative days.

Now, only the governor can call a special session.

The amendment would also allow the legislature to extend the regular session if 3/5ths of the General Assembly agrees.

HB4 is assigned to the House Elections committee.

Senate Bill 195: restoring felon voting rights

Sens. Brandon Storm, R-London, and Robin Webb, D-Grayson, are collaborating on a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to convicted felons three years after completing their sentences.

The amendment would not preclude the governor’s ability to pardon felons before three years.

SB195 is assigned to the Senate State and Local Government committee.

House Bill 2: School choice

Typically, bills not assigned a committee have lesser chances of progressing, but HB2 is an exception.

Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, is sponsoring a proposed amendment that would allow the state to allocate money for students outside of the public school system.

This change would make it easier for Kentucky to adopt more school choice measures, like a previous attempt to establish private school vouchers ruled unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Other proposed amendments not assigned a committee (yet)

Rep. Candy Massaroni, R-Bardstown, sponsored HB59 to give the legislature the power to exempt part or all of any class of property from taxation.

Rep. Nina Kulnarni, D-Louisville, has an amendment to legalize recreational marijuana in amounts of one ounce or less.

Rep. George Brown Jr., D-Lexington, want to officially eliminate the part of the Kentucky Constitution that allows slavery and involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.

Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, proposed two amendments—one to establish a right to a healthy environment, including clean air, pure water and ecologically healthy habitats in the state constitution, and the other giving people the power to propose their own ballot initiatives.

Rep. Lindsey Burke, D-Lexington, wants to establish a citizens redistricting commission with the exclusive authority to adopt plans.

Finally, Keturah Herron, D-Louisville, filed an amendment to lower the minimum ages to become a state legislator to 21 for a representative and 24 for a senator.