Ryland Barton

State Capitol Bureau Reporter

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. 

Always looking to put a face to big issues, Ryland's reporting has taken him to drought-weary towns in West Texas and relocated communities in rural China. He's covered breaking news like the 2014 shooting at Fort Hood Army Base and the aftermath of the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. 

Ryland has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Kentucky only has about 40 estates that would benefit this year from repealing the federal estate tax, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

U.S. House Republicans are pushing to repeal the tax, which taxes assets left by the deceased at a rate of 40 percent.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing the tax would reduce revenues by about $269 billion over the next decade.

Kentucky Center for Economic Policy director Jason Bailey said repealing the tax would hurt Kentuckians because of the state’s dependence on federal assistance.

“Kentucky’s economy, our communities, our quality of life really depend on federal resources coming back to us, and when those federal resources are cut because of tax cuts, particularly misguided tax cuts that benefit the super-rich as the estate tax does, that harms the state,” Bailey said.

Estates that are less than $5.43 million for a single person and $10.9 million for married couples are exempted from the tax.

An Eastern Kentucky nurse is suing the state for not allowing her to take addiction medicine like Suboxone or Vivitrol while she’s out of jail on bond.

The terms set by Floyd County District Court, where Stephanie Watson’s court case is still pending, prevent her from using medically-assisted drug treatment.

Most courts in Kentucky don’t allow those who are on probation, in jail or out on bond to use drugs that treat addiction because some, like Suboxone, are addictive.

Stephanie Watson was arrested for breaking into a Prestonsburg biohazard waste container to retrieve remnants from disposed drug vials.

Watson’s lawyer, Ned Pillersdorf, has filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Eastern Kentucky. He says that judges who refuse to allow addicts to use Suboxone and Methadone are part of a system that violates the Americans With Disabilities act.

“They don’t need to have judges or drug courts looking over their shoulder and saying we will approve or won’t approve that particular prescription,” Pillsersdorf said. “Our position is that opiate addicts should have the right to receive lawful prescriptions from doctors who are able to prescribe without interference from the court system.”

Kentucky LRC

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and The Courier-Journal have filed a motion to intervene in an ongoing sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the Legislative Research Commission by two former staffers of the agency.

The media organizations are trying to bring to light depositions of former Legislative Research Commission director Bobby Sherman and state Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat.

Overly is scheduled to be deposed on Monday and Sherman was deposed on Wednesday. They have tried to keep the depositions sealed, citing privacy concerns.

Sherman announced his resignation from the LRC in September 2013, following the conclusion of an internal probe into allegations that former state Rep. John Arnold, a Democrat from Sturgis, sexually harassed statehouse employees.

According to documents filed in the lawsuit in Franklin Circuit Court, Arnold also inappropriately touched Overly, who is currently running for lieutenant governor on the ticket headed by current state Attorney General Jack Conway.

Republican candidates for Kentucky governor say presumptive Democratic nominee Jack Conway isn’t fit to serve because he would not fight a challenge to the state’s same sex marriage ban.

Conway refused to defend the ban last year, saying the law is discriminatory. Gov. Steve Beshear hired outside counsel to defend the law.

Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, one of four Republicans seeking the party’s gubernatorial nomination, said not wanting to defend a law shouldn’t matter.

“It doesn’t matter if you agree with the constitution or not. When you take that oath to uphold the constitution, you represent the people of Kentucky,” Comer said.

Louisville businessman and Republican frontrunner Hal Heiner said that Conway should have been required to defend the constitutional amendment.

Kentucky LRC

With a little more than a month to go before Kentucky’s primary, gubernatorial candidates are rolling out the attacks and ramping the rhetoric.

This week, a super PAC tied to Republican front runner Hal Heiner released television commercials accusing opposing candidates of not being conservative enough because they take handouts from the government.

One commercial claimed that Agriculture Commissioner James Comer advocated against government funded farm subsidies, but receives $87,000 in subsidies for his own farms.

At a debate Wednesday, Comer fired back, accusing Heiner of being hypocritical by not denouncing the ad.

“What he didn’t mention in the ad is that even though he has a very small farm, he has received farm subsidies, in fact he’s received significantly more farm subsidies than I have per acre,” Comer said.

The ad was sponsored by Citizens for a Sound Government, which the Courier-Journal reports, supports Heiner and will spend about $640,000 on TV ads over the next two weeks.

During the Louisville Forum debate, Heiner refused to renounce the ads and denied any connection with them.

“Well Jamie, those are not my ads. I want to be judged in this campaign by what I say. I want to be judged by what the Heiner-Crosby campaign, the policy ideas and those ideas that we put out across Kentucky as we’ve traveled over the last 57 months,” Heiner said.

Gov. Steve Beshear has vetoed part of a bill that appropriates money from the state’s settlement with tobacco companies.

The bill had set aside money to fill an estimated $26.6 million shortfall to fund agriculture, lung cancer research and early childhood programs.

The governor deleted the line that would have appropriated $26.6 million, saying that the shortfall has grown to $37 million.

“Taking this action now provides a solution to this late-breaking problem and avoids budget cuts to the very same programs for which the General Assembly, in this bill, provides additional funding for next year,” Beshear said in his veto statement.

The bill restores funds to several programs that are funded by a multi-state, multi-million dollar settlement stemming from a 1998 lawsuit against tobacco companies. Additional money for the programs comes from a smaller settlement Attorney General Jack Conway secured from tobacco companies last year.

Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

Presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Conway won’t attend President Obama’s visit to Louisville on Thursday.

He’s instead scheduled to be in Eastern Kentucky for meetings about heroin and prescription drug abuse. But a political scientist says it’s unsurprising that a Kentucky Democrat would skip a visit to the state by the party’s national leader.

Obama, who will talk about the economy in Kentucky’s largest city,  has been unpopular in Kentucky and state Democrats have distanced themselves from the president in recent years.

State politicians distance themselves from the president to avoid losing favor with more conservative Democrats across the state, said Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.

“If you’re trying to attract them then clearly you’re going to have to portray a face to them that’s not cozying up to the so-called liberal bastions in the party starting with President Obama,” Clayton said.

Obama overwhelming lost to his rivals in Kentucky in the last two presidential elections. The state tends to skew toward the GOP in federal elections and elects mostly Democratic candidates in statewide races. The state’s governor is a Democrat and the state House is controlled by the party, but Republicans make up seven of eight members of the state’s federal delegation.

White House

Kentucky Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway says he won’t be in Louisville Thursday when President Barack Obama visits the city.  Conway is only the latest Democratic candidate to attempt to avoid being tied to Obama.

Obama is unpopular in Kentucky, and has lost to his rivals here during the last two presidential races. Tying Democrats to the president and his policies has been part of the GOP strategy for the past few years, most recently in last year’s U.S. Senate race. During that campaign, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes famously refused to say whether she voted for Obama and ended up losing to incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell by a wide margin.

State Democrats like Grimes and Conway have found themselves in the awkward position of opposing the national Democratic platform and courting those who worry that the president’s environmental policies amount to a fatal blow to the already crippled coal industry. Conway has been working on that; in his capacity as Attorney General, he joined a multi-state lawsuit against the EPA’s proposed carbon regulations. Last week, Conway also received an endorsement from the United Mine Workers Association.

Conway will be in eastern Kentucky to discuss anti-drug efforts when Obama talks about the economy on Thursday in Louisville.

Other prominent Democratic candidates will miss Obama's visit this time.

State Auditor Adam Edelen says he will attend a fundraiser in eastern Kentucky. Attorney general candidate Andy Beshear will be meeting with law enforcement to talk about heroin abuse.

Flickr/Creative Commons

The opposing sides of the 2015 beer battle topped the list of lobbying spending during the first two months of the Kentucky General Assembly, according recently released numbers from the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.

Spending reports only become available a month later because of filing deadlines.

Anheuser-Busch, Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth and Kentucky Beer Wholesalers were among the top-five spenders during the session, dropping a combined $483,830 on lobbying expenses and advertising in January and February.

Anheuser-Busch unsuccessfully fought against a bill that will forbid out-of-state beer brewers from owning distributors in the state. With the backing of craft beer and local distributors, the bill was signed into law by Gov. Steve Beshear in early March.

Both Anheuser-Busch and Kentuckians for Entrepreneurs & Growth aired TV and radio advertisements across the state, with AB over doubling KEG’s advertising dollars.

Anheuser-Busch says it will have to close the distributorships it owns in Louisville and Owensboro by the end of this year, but is still “reviewing its legal options,” saying that the law violates the Kentucky and U.S. Constitutions.

About $4.2 million was spent on lobbying in total. Here’s a rundown of the top spenders.

A religious freedom law, similar to the one that has recently drawn national attention in Indiana, has been on the books in Kentucky for two years and is currently being used as an argument to sue the state.

The proprietors of the Ark Encounter project in Northern Kentucky are suing state Tourism Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart and Gov. Steve Beshear for excluding the 500-foot-long Noah’s Ark replica from a tourism tax break.

In the lawsuit, the proprietors of the project, Answers in Genesis, say that the state discriminated against the ministry under the Kentucky Religious Freedom Act by pulling a promised $18 million in tax incentives.

The state withdrew funding, saying that public dollars couldn’t go to a project that hires employees based on religious background.

University of Kentucky law professor Scott Bauries said the religious freedom law allows the plaintiffs to argue that the state discriminated against them.

“Because the state of Kentucky seeks to hold them to a higher standard than what the ordinary anti-discrimination laws would hold them to—and because it doesn’t seek to do that with any non-religious employers—that it’s discriminating against them based on their religion,” Bauries said.

Under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, religious employers are allowed to hire “coreligionists” if doing so furthers the religious purpose of the organization.

An increase in Medicaid services and a decline in the private insurance market in rural Kentucky has hit rural hospitals hard, according to State Auditor Adam Edelen.

More than two-thirds of Kentucky’s rural hospitals are below the national average on a financial strength rating system, and more than one-third are considered to be in poor financial health, according to a report released Monday.

Local governments are already moving to set up needle exchanges just a day after the Kentucky state legislature authorized the programs through a comprehensive heroin bill.

If implemented, drug users would be able to exchange dirty needles for clean ones from local public health departments.

Rice Leach, the commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette County Public Health Department, said needle exchanges would stymie the transfer of blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis C and HIV.

“From a public health point of view it’s a perfect way to reduce the spread of diseases if not managed properly,” Leach said. “And those diseases manage to work their way into the population that does not use drugs.”

Public health departments in Louisville, Lexington and Northern Kentucky have indicated they support needle exchanges and are working with local councils to approve programs.

In a statement, the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness said officials were “studying the possibility of local implementation.” The Louisville officials will examine cost, locations and possible partners for an exchange, the department said in a statement.

Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

On the last day of the Kentucky General Assembly’s 2015 session, Attorney General Jack Conway called on legislators to pass a bill to deal with the state’s growing heroin problem.

“I hope here on the final day of the legislative session that the legislature gets its act together,” Conway said during a news conference.

So far, lawmakers have been squabbling over differing versions of the bill. A heroin bill died in the final minutes of last year’s session.

Conway, a Democrat who is also running for governor, said the bill should include tougher penalties for major heroin traffickers and more funding for treatment. He also called for a bill that would make an overdose-reversing drug called naloxone more available. His stance is the same as House Democrats.

“Four simple provisions that are relatively non-controversial that need to be passed, that need to be passed by midnight tonight because people are dying, because law enforcement officials are having trouble dealing with the problem and prosecutors need help in trying to rid our streets of this scourge,” Conway said.

A committee headed by Conway and First Lady Jane Beshear has distributed 2,000 naloxone kits to the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Northern Kentucky.

The total cost for the kits is over $100,000. The kits were funded as part of a $32 million settlement between the state and two pharmaceutical companies. The settlement money has also gone to fund nonprofit treatment programs across the state and provide users with “scholarships” to treatment programs.

LRC Public Information

With two working days to go, Kentucky lawmakers still haven’t nailed down legislation to address the state’s growing heroin problem and it’s ailing teachers pension system.

On Friday, legislators from both chambers met for hours, trying to craft compromises on the bills.

A solution is starting to take shape to help shore up the teachers pension system, but the House and Senate remain divided on sentencing guidelines in the heroin bill.

Lawmakers have until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to pass laws.

Heroin

Representatives and senators were still at odds Friday afternoon over needle exchanges, sentencing guidelines for heroin traffickers, and whether to include a “good Samaritan” clause that would provide immunity to those who report heroin overdoses.

Senate President Robert Stivers repeatedly suggested that the committee stop arguing and produce a bill that only includes points that lawmakers agree on: making overdose-reversing drug naloxone more available and increasing funding for treatment programs.

Kentucky LRC

Kentucky lawmakers say they’ve come a long way in coming up with a legislative solution to the state’s heroin epidemic, but no consensus has emerged on the biggest sticking point—how to punish heroin traffickers.

The House wants to keep the state’s current law that gives low-level heroin traffickers lighter prison sentences. The Senate wants strict sentencing across the board.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican and candidate for lieutenant governor, said strict sentencing guidelines would still allow prosecutors to use discretion and provide reduced charges for “peddlers.”

“We believe that we need to trust our prosecutors locally to make these decisions and we trust our prosecutors,” he said.

On Thursday, a conference committee made up of six representatives and six senators attempted to hammer out final details of the bill. To get heroin legislation passed in this session, both the state House and Senate would have to vote on a final version of the bill on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Rep. John Tilley, a Hopkinsville Democrat and author of the House version of the bill, said lawmakers need to “legislate to the bad” prosecutors—to prevent low-level traffickers and addicts from entering the prison system.

Tilley said current law already has tough penalties for traffickers, and he pointed out that low-level drug dealers would receive a Class C felony if they received a second trafficking offense.

Senators also took issue with a House proposal to add $10 million dollars for drug treatment to the bill.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Manchester Republican, said House lawmakers need to identify the source for the additional funding.

“I think we all have to take a realistic look: where are those monies coming from,” Stivers asked.

The provision for additional money had been proposed by Rep. Sannie Overly, a Paris Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor.

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