What is a shell bill in the Kentucky legislature?


Kentucky State Senator Damon Thayer, left, R-Georgetown, descends the stairs of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. On Friday, March 12, 2021.

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They come under several names.

Act relating to reorganizations. Insurance Act. An act relating to education, or to banking, or to economic development, or to agriculture.

They all claim to do one of two things: add non-sexist language or make a “technical correction” to a Kentucky law.

There are not many he / him pronouns in the Revised Kentucky Statutes. Instead, these are shell bills, sometimes referred to as mule bills. They’re filed and given all the necessary readings and assignments just so lawmakers can remove them and add something new at the last minute, with little public input. These are fish waiting to be gutted and turkeys waiting to be stuffed.

“It’s called deceiving the public,” said Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville. “You get a whole new bill that no one has had a chance to read and the public hasn’t had a chance to watch.”

The legislature is often presented as the deliberative organ of government. The legislative process, mapped out by the Kentucky Constitution, is designed so that people can express their views on bills as they methodically move between the House and the Senate before being sent to the Governor. for his signature.

Working at its fastest pace – without hanging the rules – it takes the legislature at least five days to pass a bill.

Shell bills allow lawmakers to skip much of this, reducing the time it takes for a bill to become law while limiting the contribution of the casual observer.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said the process protects information from the public, causing it to lose confidence in the politicians who represent it.

“Everything we do here needs to be done as transparently as possible,” McGarvey said. “To do otherwise makes people lose confidence in government. “

The 2021 legislative session – already unusual as COVID-19 cut short the 2020 session and restrictions largely kept the general public away from Capitol Hill – featured several fictitious bills as lawmakers rushed to push through the law. legislation on the finish line within a short legislative period of 30 days. session.

One of those bills was House Bill 312, which weakens Kentucky’s Open Records Act. It was included in a bill that initially made gender-neutral linguistic changes in a law that dealt with financial institutions. This change was made by a House committee on a Thursday. The next day he had cleared the House of Representatives, just as outcry began to mount from opponents reading the bill for the first time.

House Speaker David Osborne has defended the sleight of hand, saying lawmakers and interest groups have been working on the wording of the bill for years.

“It’s just not true to say that no one knew about it,” Osborne said.

Yet the bill was available to the public less than 24 hours before it was passed by the House of Representatives. By the time it passed through the Senate – with more public comment – the bill included changes advocated by critics who did not have time to express their views before the vote in the House.

Shell invoices have long been a part of the operation of the Kentucky General Assembly. Republicans and Democrats – according to the majority – have used them to help push controversial measures through the legislature.

“We just have to have these tools at our disposal,” said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer of R-Georgetown.

He said time constraints often force lawmakers to take this particular shortcut. “It’s not like many legislatures that are in session for the year.”

In each session, lawmakers have a deadline to introduce new bills, usually around mid-term. Sometimes lawmakers reach agreement on the language of a bill or wish to address an issue after this deadline has expired. Since they can’t file a new invoice, they use an existing one, abandoning the old language.

Usually this is done by a “committee surrogate”, which means that the old language of the bill is rejected and replaced by a new language at a committee meeting. Often the committee votes on the revised bill before it has even been released for the public to read.

One of the most notorious examples came in 2018, when Republicans were trying to pass major pension reforms for Kentucky’s teacher retirement system. Instead of using a shell bill, the legislature used what is sometimes called a “parasitic bill”.

Republicans took “a sewerage law”, gutted it and replaced it with the language of a pension bill that had been blocked by a Senate committee. The “Sewer Bill,” as it came to be known, had already passed the Senate, so after leaving the House in one day, the Senate only had to vote to “approve. »Changes made by the House to the bill.

The Kentucky Supreme Court later struck down the law, saying politicians did not go through the law-making process as defined in the constitution.

Now, when lawmakers pass a fictitious bill, they read a text that directly addresses the 2018 Supreme Court ruling.

This story was originally published 26 March 2021 09:20.

Daniel Desrochers has been a political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.
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