By Jack Brammer – firstname.lastname@example.org
FRANKFORT – A House panel overwhelmingly approved constitutional amendments Tuesday that would protect hunting and fishing rights and give convicted felons who serve their time the right to vote.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he thinks the full House will sign off on both measures. Their fate in the Senate is uncertain. If approved by the General Assembly, voters would decide the issues at the ballot in 2012.
With no discussion, the House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs passed House Bill 1, which would create a right to hunt and fish in Kentucky. All members voted for it except Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, who cast a “pass” vote.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, acknowledged that some people question the importance of the amendment but said it makes hunting and fishing a right instead of a privilege.
Combs and Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, told reporters that hunting and fishing are important to Kentucky’s economic development and tourism.
“The stronger we can make them, the better off we are as a state,” Combs said.
She also said the potential exists for some groups to try to ban hunting.
Combs said the legislation is a top priority of the National Rifle Association and 15 other states have adopted it.
“It’s important because it guarantees that the management of our fisheries, resources and wildlife herds will be done by public hunting,” Stumbo said. “One of the tactics of anti-hunting groups is you can hunt deer but only one per season. Biologists tell us that leads to devastation of the herd. A harvest is what keeps the deer in good shape and that is what we want to do with our fisheries, resources and herds.”
The Senate already has approved and sent to the House a change to the Kentucky Constitution dubbed the “21st Century Bill of Rights” that would protect the state from federal intrusion on issues such as coal mining, posting of the Ten Commandments, abortion, expanded gambling and guns.
It also contains a provision to protect hunting and fishing.
Stumbo said the Senate amendment has “a constitutional problem” because it contains more than one issue. “You can’t put 18 amendments on one bill,” he said.
Asked if the House amendment was designed to bring out more Democratic voters next year in state House races, Stumbo said he did not think it necessarily will increase the number of voters.
The felon voting rights amendment has been approved by the House committee every year since 2007 but it has never gotten out of a Senate committee.
The measure, HB 70, would restore voting rights after felons complete their sentences and probation.
Testifying on behalf of the bill Tuesday were Father Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky; Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP; Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel; state public advocate Ed Monahan; and Adrienne Gilbert, a self-described “constituent” from LaRue County who has a friend with a felony conviction.
Delahanty told the committee that Virginia and Kentucky are the only two states that do not allow felon voting rights.
Cunningham noted that Kentucky has 128,000 former felons who cannot vote. Stengel called the amendment “an issue of fundamental fairness.”
Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, said the state legislature has a history of making more and more crimes felonies.
“Sometimes we create felons like baking cookies,” he said. “Maybe we need to re-evaluate who we make felons.”
Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, was the only committee member to vote against the bill.
He had questioned the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, on whether the governor could restore voting rights for felons through an executive order.
Crenshaw said he believes that is possible but that it would be better to have the issue in the state Constitution.