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Lawmakers rush limits on abortion, labor unions through Kentucky Senate and House

The Kentucky Capitol in winter.
The Kentucky Capitol in winter. FILE PHOTO

Although Republican lawmakers said they would focus in 2017 on jobs and Kentucky’s economy, the first bills to fly out of the Senate and House chambers on Thursday concerned women’s access to abortion.

The Republican-led Senate voted 36 to 6 to pass Senate Bill 5, banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Across the Capitol, the Republican-led House voted 82 to 13 for House Bill 2, requiring doctors to conduct an ultrasound on women seeking abortion, though the patient could opt out of viewing the results by signing a form.

Other measures passed Thursday would curb the power of labor unions to collect dues from workers and make political donations; repeal the higher “prevailing wage” paid on construction projects by local governments; require medical malpractice claims to be heard by a panel of doctors before they could be filed as a lawsuit; and restructure the University of Louisville board of trustees, which is the subject of legal battles and a possible loss of accreditation for the school.

Less controversially, the Senate without opposition passed Senate Bill 3, which would allow legislators’ state pensions to be disclosed under the Kentucky Open Records Act.

Those bills are expected to be heard Friday by committees of the other chamber, with a strong likelihood of being signed into law by GOP Gov. Matt Bevin after a rare Saturday session allows for final floor votes.

After many years of frustration with sharing control over state government, Republicans are now in command. They brushed aside Democratic lawmakers who hoped to influence their top-priority bills, limiting debate to one hour, ruling Democratic floor amendments irrelevant and hastily rewriting some measures in quickly held committee hearings in small Capitol rooms. The bill to reorganize the U of L board, for example, started as legislation about dog bites on rental property until it was rewritten shortly before the floor vote.

But it was the abortion debate that consumed much of the afternoon, with scores of people in the Capitol rotunda protesting SB 5 and HB 2.

Sen. Brandon Smith, the Hazard Republican who sponsored SB 5, said a 20-week-old fetus is capable in its mother’s uterus of yawning, stretching, making faces and sucking its fingers. It is barbaric to take a life at that stage or beyond, Smith said, explicitly describing what he said was the destruction of the baby’s body.

“I cannot imagine we would let that happen to an animal, to a puppy, to a cat. So it’s unacceptable that we’re letting it happen to our children, to the least of us,” Smith said.

Several Democratic senators objected to the proposed ban, saying the state should not be in the position of forcing a woman to carry her pregnancy to term, regardless of whether she was the victim of rape or incest or is otherwise unprepared for a baby. The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade protects women’s right to have an abortion until the fetus is viable outside of the womb, typically interpreted as around 24 weeks into the pregnancy.

“Really, how women deal with that is between women, their families and their god,” said Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington. Thomas predicted that Kentucky will force women into “back-alley butcher shops” by making legal abortions difficult to obtain.

In response, Smith said women should embrace their pregnancies, planned or not.

“This should not be looked at as an inconvenience, but rather, I would submit, as an opportunity,” Smith said.

The House limited debate to one hour on each bill it considered, including a measure that requires physicians to present the results of an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion.

Democrats protested the time limit and their inability to present amendments to the bill.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, said the bill was written “from a man’s point of view,” but Rep. Robert Benvenuti, R-Lexington, said the proposal is an “informed consent” measure that simply provides more information to women.

Other bills passed included:

▪  Two bills that could weaken unions in Kentucky, Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 1. SB 6 would require workers to “opt in” to having union dues withheld from their paychecks, and it also would require unions to separately solicit money for its political activities. HB 1 would let workers avoid paying union dues even if they get the benefits of a union-negotiated workplace contract.

On a related labor issue, the House passed House Bill 3 to repeal the prevailing wage, a minimum salary for construction workers on local government projects. Supporters of the repeal say it would save taxpayer money by eliminating inflated labor rates. Opponents counter that it would lead to shoddy construction.

Speaking against the bill that bans mandatory union dues, Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, said “God must be making a huge addition in hell to accommodate forces behind this kind of legislation.”

Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, countered that no one should be forced to join a union in order to get a job.

The legislation also contains a provision that bans local governments from enacting their own prevailing wage ordinances, said Rep. Jim DeCesare, R-Rockfield.

▪  Senate Bill 4, which would establish medical review panels to issue non-binding opinions on medical neglect or malpractice claims before lawsuits could be filed.

Supporters said the panels will discourage frivolous lawsuits that drive up costs for doctors and health-care facilities. Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, a retired hospital chief executive, said his hospital faced more than 300 “demand letters” from lawyers over 30 years alleging malpractice, all of them baseless but expensive to deal with.

Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones warned that medical review panels will delay an already cumbersome process for patients who have been harmed by a medical provider. If the panels are composed exclusively of doctors, it’s unlikely the patients can expect to hear an independent opinion, Jones said.

“Some would say this bill is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse,” Jones said. “The data shows there is no litigation crisis in Kentucky. This is clearly big government and crony capitalism at its finest.”

▪  Senate Bill 12, which would create a new U of L governing board composed of 10 trustees subject to Senate confirmation, selected by the governor from a larger pool of 30 people recommended by the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Last year, Bevin dissolved the U of L board over what he called dysfunction. He appointed a smaller, 10-person board, and Attorney General Andy Beshear sued, saying the governor overstepped his authority. A circuit judge agreed, which reconstituted the original board. Bevin appealed and both sides are waiting to see if the case will go directly to the Supreme Court.

Last month, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the university on probation, saying Bevin’s actions had threatened the school’s independence. Loss of accreditation would threaten federal funding of research and financial aid, as well as NCAA sports.

In a statement Thursday night, acting U of L provost Dale Billingsley declined to pass judgment on SB 12.

“If new legislation permits us to meet both sets of requirements, the university will benefit,” Billingsley said. “If the legislation does not permit the university to comply with the SACS principles, the commonwealth will be adversely affected by loss of the university’s accreditation.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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