FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky Republicans released years of pent-up frustration Thursday, flexing the power of historic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature to push through bills targeting labor unions, abortion and lawmakers’ pensions.
The House and Senate approved a series of bills less than 72 hours after convening their legislative session. Those proposals were part of the Republican agenda for years, only to be blocked by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives.
But this year, Republicans have super majorities in both chambers, clearing the way for them to pass an aggressive agenda over the objections of Democrats.
“I had to go out to my car and get my seat belt,” said Democratic Rep. Darryl Owens, complaining about the unprecedented speed of the legislative actions.
In the House, Republicans passed a bill requiring a woman to have an ultrasound and listen to a fetal heartbeat before undergoing an abortion, with no exception for rape or incest.
They approved a measure making it illegal to require workers to pay union dues to keep a job. And they passed a bill to repeal the state’s prevailing-wage law, which required workers earn a higher wage on construction projects financed with public money.
In the Senate, lawmakers passed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unless the mother’s life is in danger. They approved a proposal to set up a medical review panel to vet malpractice lawsuits. They voted to make public the details of lawmakers’ pension benefits.
“These bills that are passing both chambers today are a reflection of years of work and preparation for this day,” said Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer. “The voters delivered a mandate … and we feel a commitment to them.”
Each bill now heads to the other chamber for consideration. House and Senate leaders were considering convening a Saturday session to pass the bills before a three-week recess.
Taking on an issue embroiling one of the state’s largest public universities, the Senate quickly passed legislation to reshape the University of Louisville’s board of trustees.
The proposal shepherded by Senate President Robert Stivers would disband the current board and create a new, smaller board appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin. The Senate would have confirmation authority.
The issue surfaced last year when Bevin abolished and replaced the UofL board and negotiated the resignation of former President James Ramsey. That prompted the school’s accrediting body to put it on probation for a year, citing concerns over possible “undue political influence.”
Stivers said the proposal was aimed at ending the upheaval. Democrats complained it was rushed through without assurances that it would solve the problem.
Meanwhile, hundreds of union workers and abortion rights advocates filled the Capitol on Thursday, holding noisy rallies. Union workers packed the gallery overlooking the House floor, alternating between applause and boos.
Lawmakers relied on personal stories to explain their votes. Democratic state Rep. Attica Scott said she voted against the ultrasound bill because she was “the daughter of a mother who had an abortion” and believes in a woman’s right to choose.
Republican state Rep. Kimberly Moser said she voted for the ultrasound bill because she was a mother of five and a former neonatal intensive care nurse.
The debate turned impassioned at times as the proposed 20-week abortion ban sailed through the Senate. Republican Sen. Brandon Smith said fetuses at that stage of development can suck a thumb, yawn and stretch. The bill defends their chance for life, he said.
Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas said he feared the restrictions would turn back the clock to an era when women sought out “back-alley butcher shops” to obtain abortions.
The most passionate debate in the House was reserved for a bill making it illegal to force workers to pay dues to a labor union. The bill would make Kentucky the 27th “right-to-work” state, joining every other state in the South. Opponents said the bill would weaken labor unions, reducing their bargaining power and leading to lower wages. Supporters said the bill is needed to attract more jobs to Kentucky.
The debate was deeply emotional, with state Rep. Chris Harris holding up a piece of scrip that coal companies used to pay his grandfather, currency that could only be used in the company store. Democratic state Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville went further.
“God must be creating a huge addition to Hell to accommodate the forces behind this kind of legislation,” he said.
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