- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - After making short work of labor unions and abortion restrictions, Kentucky’s new Republican majority in the state legislature is likely to turn its attention toward criminal justice reform with the goal of reducing the state’s prison population.

Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate pushed through seven bills during its first week in session, a show of force that outlawed mandatory labor union fees and banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The legislation brought Kentucky in line with some of its southern neighbors that have been controlled by Republicans for years.

When lawmakers return to work Feb. 7, they will face issues that could take more time to build consensus among the new Republican leadership, including a proposed overhaul to the state’s penal code pushed by Gov. Matt Bevin. The first-term governor created a committee last summer charged with updating the state’s criminal code, which was first written in 1974 and has been amended many times since then.

“It’s a gross oversimplification, but we need to punish the right people and we also need to correct the behavior of people who are getting out,” said Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The proposal, which is still being drafted, would tweak some laws in the hopes of leading to fewer felony convictions. For example, Westerfield said the bill would make it a felony to steal something worth $2,000 or more. Currently, it’s a felony to steal something worth $500 or more, a limit that would include most smartphones. Felony convictions carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.

The proposal would take that approach with a number of crimes, including increasing the threshold for felony nonpayment of child support to $5,000 from $1,000. It would also make it easier, but not automatic, for convicted felons to obtain certain state licenses needed to start a new career, such as becoming a barber.

“Corrections costs are still eating up a great deal of our budget, and we’d much rather spend it on things that are not related to prisons, such as roads, teachers, pensions and the like,” Westerfield said.

Westerfield acknowledged some of the proposals could be difficult to pass, but said he expects the bill to have bipartisan support. House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins said he has not seen a detailed proposal, but said he and his caucus will remain “open minded.”

Other bills likely to see votes include Senate Bill 7, which would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. The bill includes exceptions for police stations, jails, courthouses, public meetings of government bodies, schools, airports and bars.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said the legislature will likely try to move statewide elections to even-numbered years, a proposal generally seen to benefit Republicans who tend to do better when coupled with federal elections. And Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said lawmakers are looking at a bill to restructure the bonds for the Louisville’s Yum! Center, where the University of Louisville’s men’s basketball team plays.

But perhaps the biggest challenge facing lawmakers is a push to overhaul the state’s tax code. While most lawmakers agree the state needs to make changes to who it taxes and how much people pay, the details typically divide lawmakers along geographic rather than partisan lines, making it much more difficult to reach a consensus.

“I just think tax reform as a whole is going to be very difficult and people are going to have to really buckle up and be prepared for a rocky ride,” Thayer said.

Bevin has pledged to make tax reform a top issue of his administration, but said it would most likely take place in a special legislative session sometime later this year. Republican leaders say they have not even started to discuss the framework of a proposal.

Republican House Speaker Jeff Hoover would not say what he hopes to do in February, but added Kentuckians likely won’t see “the breakneck speed” of the session’s first five days.

“You will see us getting pretty aggressive about getting things done,” he said.

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