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Kentucky constitutional amendment would give legislature more power

Ryan Van Velzer

On Election Day in November, there are two amendments on the ballot in Kentucky: the much-publicized Amendment 2, which would undermine abortion rights in the state, and the lesser-known Amendment 1, which would allow the Legislature to call itself into special session.

Supporters say the Legislature needs to be able to call itself into session to pass laws when they aren’t in agreement with the governor, who is currently the only one empowered to call a special session. Opponents argue the measure would radically shift powers from the governor to lawmakers.

Senate Pro Tem David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, says the pandemic was a catalyst for introducing the measure.

“The frustrations we felt as members of the General Assembly following the governor’s declaration of emergency in 2020 was really about local control over decision making for people’s lives,” Givens said. “There are other circumstances like the pandemic where we feel the governor’s authority to declare an emergency without end needs to be constrained.”

The Republican-led legislature butted heads with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear during the coronavirus pandemic. The state of emergency gave the governor unilateral authority to respond to the pandemic, though lawmakers responded by clipping his powers.

Currently the Legislature meets for 30 working days in odd-numbered years and 60 working days in even-numbered years. Lawmakers are constitutionally required to conclude business by either March 30 or April 15, respectively.

Amendment 1 would allow the Legislature to extend the session beyond the current cutoff if three-fifths of each chamber vote to do so. It would also allow the speaker of the House and the Senate president to call a special session for up to 12 additional days to deal with emergencies or other matters. This joint proclamation would only have to be declared by the speaker and the president, not lawmakers, and the session would not have to be specific to a topic, as it is required under the current scheme.

Al Cross, a longtime journalist and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said the amendment would shift more power to lawmakers.

“The Legislature is asking the citizens to give it more power. And the citizens have to ask themselves, how responsible do we think the Legislature will be with this power? Will it be abused? Is this an overreach?” Cross said.

The amendment is longer than proposals seen by Kentucky voters in recent years. The 158-word proposal will read as follows:

“Are you in favor of amending the present Constitution of Kentucky to repeal sections 36, 42, and 55 and replace those sections with new sections of the Constitution of Kentucky to allow the General Assembly to meet in regular session for thirty legislative days in odd-numbered years, for sixty legislative days in even-numbered years, and for no more than twelve additional days during any calendar year if convened by a Joint Proclamation of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, with no session of the General Assembly to extend beyond December 31; and to provide that any act passed by the General Assembly shall become law on July 1 of the year in which it was passed, or ninety days after passage and signature of the Governor, whichever occurs later, or in cases of emergency when approved by the Governor or when it otherwise becomes law under Section 88 of the Constitution?”

Since the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down a proposed amendment in 2018 for being too vague, lawmakers now include the entirety of the proposed language in the ballot question.

Republican Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams said language must be exactly reproduced from the original legislation without tweaks.

“The legalese unfortunately is going to have to be on the ballot as per the rules. It’s a fair waste of ballot paper and money too, to be fair,” Adams said.

Cross said that might confuse voters.

“When people look at a long ballot question, unless they’ve been educated about it in advance, they tend to vote against it,” he said. “They’re pretty unlikely to vote ‘yes’ for something that they don’t understand.”

Northern Kentucky University constitutional law professor Kenneth Katkin predicted the vote would fall on party lines.

“This is really about a kind of a partisan battle or partisan wrestling over who’s going to be in the position to exercise power to implement their views,” he said. “I think there will always be differences about what’s the right way to exercise those emergency powers.”

Senate Pro Tem Givens argued that the measure isn’t necessarily partisan.

“Nowhere in the legislation does it indicate that solely when Republicans are in power, and the governor is a Democrat, that this can be used. This is for universal use and recognizes the power and authority of the General Assembly,” he said.

Amendment 1 will be on the ballot on November 8. Last day to register to vote is Oct. 11.