, Corbin, KY

February 20, 2014

Senate passes watered-down version of voting rights restoration, Corbin, KY

CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service

For the first time, the Kentucky state Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday asking voters to allow the restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights.

But the measure that passed the Senate is nothing like the original bill passed in the House for the eighth consecutive year, and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, said he can’t support the Senate version.

House Bill 70, if approved by voters, would automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have been convicted of non-violent, non-sexual crime and have completed their sentences and all court-ordered conditions such as restitution.

It passed the House 88-12 with wide bipartisan support and was co-sponsored by House Republican Minority Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown. It was also endorsed by Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and both testified to the Senate State Government Committee Wednesday in favor of Crenshaw’s bill.

But Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, offered a committee substitute which added a five-year waiting period before the voting rights can be restored. Additionally, any felon convicted of more than one felony or who committed another offense – including misdemeanors – after having his or her voting rights restored would then be permanently ineligible for restoration of rights.

Thayer said he has opposed any restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, pointedly adding the five-year waiting period was first the idea of Paul’s and the only way Thayer could support the measure.

Paul subsequently sidestepped a question about whether he preferred a waiting period, saying he saw it as a way to attract more Republican votes and get some sort of bill passed. But at the time the Democratic-controlled House passed Crenshaw’s original measure, Paul issued a statement praising the House vote.

Thayer pointed out both in committee and later on the Senate floor that the current process of allowing ex-felons to petition the governor for restoration of civil rights would remain intact and any ex-felon could continue to use that process.

Paul and Hoover testified in support of Crenshaw’s original version and Democrats on the committee said the five year waiting period essentially was adding a second sentence to convictions, but with Republicans controlling the majority of the committee, all said Thayer’s amendment would move the process toward a conference committee between the two chambers where compromise might reconcile the differences.

Thayer contended that Crenshaw’s original bill could not pass the Senate but Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, disagreed.

“If called to the floor, it would have passed in the form of Rep. Crenshaw’s bill,” Neal said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

He said the changes made by Thayer “make no sense” and called them “a pile-on” that extended “more punishment for those who have paid their debt to society.” He made similar arguments on the Senate floor when the bill came to a vote and passed 34-4 – with Democrats who voted for it again saying they did so to get the bill to a conference committee between the chambers in hope the final version would more closely resemble Crenshaw’s.

Neal was one of those votes but while explaining his yes vote, he also said: “God is a forgiving God who does not make you wait five years for forgiveness.”

Crenshaw, who is retiring after his current term expires and who has pushed the measure for eight consecutive years, was deeply disappointed with Thayer’s changes.

“The committee substitute is not House Bill 70 in any form or fashion,” Crenshaw told the State Government Committee. “The theory behind House Bill 70 is you want to show people they are welcomed back into society. The committee substitute does exactly the opposite.”

Crenshaw said he will continue to work to see his measure passed and hopes it can be worked out in a conference committee.

“I’m just going to work as hard as I possibly can and hope that House Bill 70 is what is passed,” he said.