Bill limiting Kentucky governor’s pardon power near elections wins bipartisan approval in Senate

Kentucky Lantern

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FRANKFORT — With bipartisan support, the Kentucky Senate took another step toward limiting pardon and sentence commutation powers of the governor. 

Republican-backed Senate Bill 126 proposes a constitutional amendment to suspend the governor’s power to issue pardons or sentence commutations from 30 days before a gubernatorial election until the fifth Tuesday after the election, the day of the gubernatorial inauguration. If the General Assembly passes the bill, Kentucky voters would decide whether to enact the measure. 

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, has said the bill is about increasing accountability for governors facing reelection. 

In 2019, after losing the election to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued a flurry of pardons to people convicted of crimes including rape, murder and child abuse.

“This forces any pardons a governor would wish to issue to be done in such a manner that they have to stand to account … to the voters of the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he said before adding that his bill would not eliminate pardon powers. 

McDaniel filed the bill after reading a news story about a sentence commutation Bevin had issued to a man convicted of abduction, rape, robbery and murder. The man was up for a parole hearing, but the Kentucky Parole Board ultimately decided the man should serve the remainder of his sentence.

Thirty-four senators voted in favor of the bill. Two Republicans, Sens. John Schickel, of Union, and Adrienne Southworth, of Lawrenceburg, voted against it. Democratic Sen. Robin Webb, of Grayson, passed. 

Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong had passed on voting for the bill in the Senate State and Local Government Committee last week as she wanted to review it further. On Wednesday, she said she was supportive of the bill. “It adds democratic accountability to the use of an important check that the executive has on the judicial branch,” she said. 

Democratic Caucus Chair Sen. Reggie Thomas stressed that the bill was a response to Bevin’s pardons and not related to current Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat recently reelected to office. 

Spokespeople for Beshear did not return a request for comment about the legislation Wednesday. 

The bill now goes to the House. The bill faces an additional possible hurdle: competition against several other constitutional amendments the General Assembly is considering, including another sponsored by McDaniel to move statewide elections to presidential election years. Voters cannot decide on more than four constitutional amendments at one time.

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