Kentucky lawmakers are pre-filing bills ahead of the 2024 session, but they’re not easy to find
Typically by this time of the year, less than a month from the start of the January legislative session, drafts of dozens of bills that lawmakers planned to introduce would be readily available on the legislature’s website for the public to read. Not so this year.
Legislation passed in 2022, which became law without Gov. Andy Beshear’s signature, eliminated the process of posting these prefiled bills on the Legislative Research Commission’s website. Ahead of the 2023 session, working drafts were posted online together, a kind of rebrand to make it clear that the legislation wasn’t final. Now, those are gone too, and no drafts are posted online in a single location.
Instead, the only way constituents can see prefiled bills is if lawmakers share their draft legislation publicly as part of meeting materials for committees or on their own websites or social media accounts. This, some advocates warn, is a step away from transparency while lawmakers are not in session.
Sponsors of House Bill 10 included Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Republican Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy. The legislation received bipartisan support with only Rep. Felicia Rabourn, R-Pendleton, and Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, voting no.
Osborne said in a statement to the Kentucky Lantern Thursday that the original prefiled bill process was “not only ineffective at increasing transparency, but also created a distraction from the work carried out by our interim joint committees.”
“Ultimately, a small fraction of prefiled bills actually made their way through the legislative process, and all bills formally filed for consideration continue to be posted on the website when session convenes,” Osborne said. “Prior to convening, the draft of any bill heard in committee during the interim is available on the committee’s section of the Legislative Research Commission website, as are the testimony and background documents provided to members of the committee. Additionally, members are welcome to share their individual bill drafts with the public at any time.”
Mike Wynn, the public information manager for LRC, said in a statement that 39 working draft bills were posted on a single page online ahead of the 2023 session. With the new process, Wynn said five draft bills are currently posted on committee pages.
Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, told the Lantern in a phone interview that the original pre-filing process was not perfect, but neither is not having a single repository for draft legislation. She said she preferred last year’s interim working draft system, though she didn’t get a chance to use it.
Southworth had tried to use the system earlier this year for a piece of legislation she was drafting, but when she gave it to a staff member to publish, that’s when she learned no drafts were being posted online. She said during debate on House Bill 10 in 2022, lawmakers were told a webpage would be maintained to act as a repository for draft legislation.
“The new system I liked, because it had potential being more robust, but of course it was first year and it was the only year it existed, so I don’t know if all of us really got in the swing of it,” Southworth said. “And then now this year, there’s just nothing and I think it does a disservice.”
As a lawmaker, Southworth said it was worthwhile to publicly share draft legislation so that outside stakeholders, such as advocacy organizations and members of the public could give input on proposed ideas. Also, lawmakers could easily search for others’ bills during discussions as they were given bill request numbers.
“If the whole body wants it, then that would be on us to make sure we make it happen,” she said. “Now, the next question is, does the whole body want it? And that’s a concern that I haven’t heard more people complaining about the lack of it.”
‘The chance to review’
During a press conference last week about a report on transparency within the legislature, members of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky said they sent a letter to members of House and Senate leadership about the lack of prefiled bills. The League is a non-partisan organization.
Cindy Heine, the legislative liaison for the League, said the group previously tracked prefiled bills to have an idea of what legislation could be coming during regular sessions.
“It gave us an opportunity to really review bills carefully before the busyness of the legislative sessions, and then be better able to advocate for or against, if that was the case, particular legislation that seemed to be moving,” Heine said. “And the fact that it’s not available just makes it more difficult.”
Prefiled bills, or last year’s working drafts, were reviewed by legislators, advocates, journalists and members of the public, Heine said. Having access to those working documents aids in overall transparency, she added.
“When bills are prefiled, it gives everybody the chance to review, kind of study. It gives the legislators who file them the opportunity to get good feedback, what’s going to work in that bill, what’s not going to work, what might create unintended consequences that they haven’t anticipated that they could correct. And so, when you have that opportunity for a good discussion and dialogue, then you have the opportunity for much better legislation.
Amy Bensenhaver, the co-founder and co-director of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, said public prefiled legislation was important for Kentuckians who do not have access to lobbyists connected to Frankfort to learn about issues before legislative sessions.
She gave an example of a prefiled bill that she advocated against in recent years that eventually became law in a later session — legislation that prevents the public release of grisly images or video of violent crimes. The previous prefiled bill process allowed interested parties to participate when legislation was being worked on, she said.
“I’m less concerned about what other lawmakers are saying in the echo chamber of the legislature,” Bensenhaver said. “I’m much more concerned about stakeholders who haven’t been invited to the table to discuss it.”
Bensenhaver said leadership in the General Assembly should abandon this recent practice. Heine agreed and added that if an online repository comes back, it should indicate to viewers that it is draft legislation, and not final.
Heine said citizens who would like to see the General Assembly maintain a draft bill page online should let their legislators know.
“We’d like to see a page dedicated to draft bills… .” Heine said. “Finding them now is really difficult.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Monday to clarify a difference between prefiled bills and working drafts.