FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky's electorate will soon cast decisive votes on something state lawmakers have craved, a ballot measure fiercely resisted by the governor that would let the legislature call itself into special session on topics of its choosing.
If the proposed constitutional amendment is ratified Nov. 8, it would shift more power toward the state's Republican-dominated legislature, continuing the evolution of a stronger legislative branch begun decades ago. With a Democrat currently in the governor's chair, that matters more than it might in times of undivided government.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has bluntly called the proposal a "power grab” by rival GOP lawmakers in the legislature and said it would disrupt the traditional separation of powers.
“No branch should be too strong," Beshear said in a video aired Monday night on Kentucky Educational Television. "Yet the legislature wants to give itself more power so that it could call itself into session to change an executive branch decision over the most minute thing.”
Republican lawmakers say the measure would fix an imbalance that leaves the legislature powerless to act most of the year, unless called back into session by the governor.
“What if we said to the judicial branch: ‘You can’t meet for eight months of the year?’” Senate President Pro Tem David Givens said on the same KET program. “That’s effectively what’s been done to us.”
Currently, Kentucky is among 14 states where only the governor can summon the legislature into special session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
If Kentucky voters approve the measure, the legislature could be called back under a joint proclamation by the House speaker and Senate president. Lawmakers also could choose topics for such sessions, which could last no more than 12 days. Governors, meanwhile, would retain their authority to convene special sessions.
It’s a potentially far-reaching measure that would enable lawmakers to meet in regular session longer into the year — though the total legislative days would remain the same: 30 in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years.
Now, regular sessions end in early spring. Extending the end date of regular sessions would require super-majority support in each chamber.
“There may be times when there’s nothing pressing on the front end of a session, where we don’t necessarily need to go in for an extended period of time," House Speaker David Osborne said on KET. "We may go in and do a few things, recess, come back later in the year where there may be more pressing issues to tackle.”
The measure comes after what GOP lawmakers said was a backlash against pandemic-related restrictions Beshear applied to businesses and gatherings in 2020, seeking to contain COVID-19. Lawmakers basically were relegated to the sidelines, unable to take action on the governor's orders until their next regular session the following year.
“I argue that this goes to the basis of checks and balances," Givens said Monday night. “That’s really what this is about. When you think about the fact that for eight months of the year, we have no ability to act.”
Pushing back against claims of a power play, Osborne said he also proposed the constitutional measure when the state had a Republican governor, Matt Bevin.
Critics say the proposal would move the General Assembly closer to a full-time legislature, making it more difficult for many people to consider running for the House or Senate. They say the current system — requiring consensus among the governor and legislators — works. They point to this year's special session that passed relief aid for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky.
“If we collectively all sit down and have this conversation, we can accomplish what we want to accomplish within the confines of what we have right now,” Democratic Rep. Jeffery Donohue said on KET.
The proposal's opponents include Eric Hyers, the governor’s 2019 campaign manager and adviser to his reelection effort for 2023. Hyers formed an issues committee seeking the measure's defeat.
“Special legislative sessions should be called for rare instances that need emergency action, like natural disasters,” Hyers said. “This amendment would instead allow politicians to call special sessions to pass their pet projects and issues.”
Responding to claims there would be no limits on what lawmakers might do in special sessions, Givens said legislators will answer for their actions when running for reelection. “Those are our limits,” he said.
A special legislative session in Kentucky costs up to roughly $68,000 per day. House and Senate members receive $188.22 in salary per each day they’re in session, with leadership receiving between $216 and $235. Lawmakers also receive $170.50 per day for expenses and 62.5 cents for each mile driven to the Capitol.
The ballot measure is Constitutional Amendment 1. A “yes” vote on Amendment 1 would give the legislature the additional scheduling flexibility, including the power to bring itself back into session for a limited time.