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.

Ryland Barton

A Republican lawmaker has filed a bill to ban mask mandates at Kentucky public schools and universities as the coronavirus continues to surge across the state and nation.

The proposal, filed Monday, comes days after the Kentucky Board of Education passed an emergency regulation requiring students, staff and visitors to wear masks in K-12 schools. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear issued his own executive order mandating masks in schools last week.

All of Kentucky’s public colleges and universities are requiring students and staff to wear masks indoors and urging people to get vaccinated.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican from Marion and sponsor of the bill, didn’t return requests for comment on Tuesday.

Ryland Barton

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan an “unmitigated disaster.”

During a press conference in Louisville on Monday, McConnell blamed Democratic President Joe Biden for recent chaos as the Taliban assumes control of the country and U.S. officials attempt to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies.

McConnell defended the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan, saying it was “essential” to keep the country from becoming a haven for terrorists.

“Not because there was any realistic hope some Western-style Democratic government was going to emerge in Afghanistan, but because we went there because it was in our own national interest,” McConnell said.

Ryland Barton

Rural Kentucky, especially in far-eastern and western parts of the state, saw sharp declines in population over the last ten years, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Meanwhile populations increased in areas around urban hubs like Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.

The data sets the stage for state lawmakers to draw new legislative and congressional district boundaries—the contentious redistricting process that takes place every ten years after the census.

Corrine Boyer

Republicans are criticizing Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s school mask mandate as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread across the state and kids are returning to school.

Beshear issued an executive order on Tuesday requiring all students, staff and visitors to wear masks in Kentucky public schools.

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron is challenging Beshear’s actions. He filed a motion with the Kentucky Supreme Court arguing the governor’s order ignores new laws passed by the legislature that limit his emergency powers.

“The Governor does not have to choose between following the science and following the law,” Cameron wrote in a statement. “The two can and should work together. If he believes that the science requires a statewide mask mandate for schools and childcare centers, then he needs to do what the law requires and work with the General Assembly to put the necessary health precautions in place.”

Ryland Barton

Republicans took turns slamming Gov. Andy Beshear during the Fancy Farm picnic on Saturday, as the governor and most Democratic supporters took a pass on the annual political event due to the coronavirus.

The state’s top Republicans—U.S. senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul—were absent too, saying they had to participate in negotiations over the federal infrastructure bill.

That left a smattering of GOP “down ballot” officials as the only speakers at Kentucky’s premier political event this year.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who has hinted he will challenge Beshear in 2023, initially sounded like he would announce his candidacy for governor from the stage, but didn’t.

“My fellow Kentuckians, it is time for a new governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Quarles said.

Ryland Barton

Politicians warmed up their insults and stump speeches at the Graves County Republican Breakfast ahead of the annual Fancy Farm picnic Saturday morning, criticizing Democrats for skipping the event due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But two notable Republicans will be absent as well—U.S. Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul—who said they had to remain in Washington D.C. to participate in negotiations over the federal infrastructure bill.

Both McConnell and Paul sent in video recorded speeches to the GOP breakfast. McConnell noted how there are far more Republicans attending the Fancy Farm picnic than there were when he first ran for Senate in 1984.

“We’ve come a long way,” McConnell said. “Now back up in Louisville, they’re sort of blowing it off these days because the Democrats don’t want to come down here.”

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman declined their invitations to Fancy Farm this year because the coronavirus delta variant is surging across the state and nation.

Ryland Barton

Some Kentucky lawmakers are pushing for a bill to discourage lawsuits that seek to intimidate or silence critics with drawn-out court proceedings.

Free speech advocates say wealthy companies and individuals file what’s called a SLAPP—a strategic lawsuit against public participation—to retaliate against people or organizations that criticize them.

The lawsuits force critics to defend themselves during lengthy and expensive litigation before a court determines an outcome.

Rep. Nima Kulkarni, a Democrat from Louisville, is pushing the legislature to pass an anti-SLAPP law. She says the lawsuits create a chilling effect on free speech, and plaintiffs often don’t intend to win in court.

Creative Commons

Kentucky’s economy has largely weathered the coronavirus pandemic so far, though the number of people working is still far below pre-virus levels and the Delta variant threatens to cause more problems.

The state’s unemployment rate in June—the last month available—was 4.4%, far below the national rate of 5.9%.

But University of Kentucky economics professor Michael Clark says the unemployment rate doesn’t account for people who aren’t looking for work and have dropped out of the labor force.

And he says some workers still aren’t rejoining the labor force for a range of reasons like feeling unsafe at work, inability to get childcare and soon-to-expire enhanced unemployment benefits.

Bytemarks via Creative Commons

Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration might partner with the federal government to build a new unemployment insurance system.

Like much of the nation, Kentucky struggled to keep up with a surge of applications for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Beshear administration has blamed the problems on understaffing, antiquated software and security issues that have led to delays in overhauling the system.

During a legislative hearing on Tuesday, Labor Cabinet Secretary Jamie Link said the federal government is forming a consortium of five or six states to share a “core unemployment system” and Kentucky is considering joining.

But he said the state may decide to overhaul the system on its own.

Stephanie Wolf

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has endorsed Charles Booker’s bid to unseat incumbent Republican Rand Paul in Kentucky’s senate race next year.

Warren is a second-term senator from Massachusetts and former Democratic presidential candidate who’s weighed in on Kentucky elections before.

She endorsed Booker in last year’s senate race after initially throwing her support behind retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. She also endorsed Alison Lundergan Grimes in her unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014.

In a statement, Warren said Booker has the “right vision and heart to reclaim Kentucky’s Senate seat for the people.”

Breya Jones

The front lawn of the Capitol building in Frankfort served as the backdrop for the “Worldwide Freedom Rally” on Saturday, where attendees railed against the unlikely possibility of mandated vaccines and the governor’s COVID-19 response.

The rally was held by America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing medical professionals organization. According to the organization, today’s rally was supposed to take place at several state capitols across the nation.  

The event’s speakers addressed critical race theory, concerns about communism in the US and the Kentucky government’s response to COVID-19. 

There was general fear about government-sponsored vaccine mandates, particularly requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for students attending public school, despite there being no discussion about that currently.

J. Tyler Franklin

Kentucky is creating an electronic search warrant system that allows police to request and judges to approve or deny warrants online.

The e-warrant system is being developed by research database company LexisNexis and comes amid scrutiny of search warrant processes in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s killing.

Members of Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s Search Warrant Task Force discussed the project on Thursday.

Troy Belcher, the lead developer of the e-warrant system with LexisNexis, said it will create more oversight of the search warrant process.

“Everybody looks at the history when it comes to the warrants. They want to see who created it, they wanted to see who sent it, who even looked at it. We’ll definitely have that information in there,” Belcher said.

Kate Howard

Kentucky will get more than $460 million as part of a multistate settlement with Johnson & Johnson and other opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The settlement is the result of several lawsuits Kentucky has filed against pharmaceutical companies. Proceeds will be put toward addiction treatment and prevention and will be distributed to the state over the coming years.

Attorney General Daniel Cameron announced the windfall on Wednesday, saying the companies created and fueled the opioid epidemic.

“There is hardly a family anywhere that has been immune to the scourge of opioids,” Cameron said during a news conference. “We’ve lost thousands of our fellow Kentuckians and seen families and children torn apart by the grips of addiction.”

J. Tyler Franklin

Lawmakers say they’ll investigate racial disparities and come up with solutions in a new Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity that met for the first time on Tuesday.

The commission, made up of legislators and citizens, was created earlier this year in response to calls for racial justice reforms and months of protests across the state and nation.

But critics say the commission is another powerless task force that exemplifies the legislature’s inaction addressing racism.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg and co-chair of the panel, said arguments over racial justice protests last summer showed the need for structured conversations about race.

J. Tyler Franklin

Local superintendents in Kentucky are calling for more state funding for programs like special education, English language learning and at-risk students.

The state pays for the programs by adding to districts’ funding based on how many students they have, but education advocates say persistent inflation has weakened assistance.

During a legislative meeting on Monday, Somerset Independent Schools Superintendent Kyle Lively said the state’s education funding mechanism hasn’t adapted.

“In order to have an excellent and equitable education, we have to have an adequate and equitable funding system for public schools,” Lively said.

Kentucky pays for its schools through a combination of state and local funding. School districts raise money through local property taxes.