FRANKFORT, Ky. (WHAS11) -- It wasn't just the first time that a Kentucky Senate committee approved a bill aimed at restoring felons' voting rights. Until U.S. Senator Rand Paul got involved, the Kentucky Senate had never even heard such a bill in committee.
By an 11-0 vote, the Senate State & Local Government Committee, approved a committee substitute of House Bill 70. Hours later, the full Senate followed suit by a 34-4 vote.
Unlike the Senate version, House Bill 70, as approved by the Democratic majority House, would automatically restore voting rights once felons completely serve their sentences.
The Republican-led Senate substitute includes several conditions, including a five year waiting period.
"To prove to the criminal justice system that they can be good citizens and not commit another crime," explained Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown), the Senate Majority Leader.
Thayer angered House Bill 70 supporters crowded into the hearing room when he suggested they have a "level of gratitude" to him for concocting a bill that he felt could be introduced in the Senate.
"The committee substitute is not House Bill 70 in any form or fashion," complained Rep. Jesse Crenshaw (D-Lexington), the bill's sponsor.
A primary co-sponsor, House Minority Leader Rep. Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown), reminded the committee HB 70 passed with bipartisan support in the House.
"We are a forgiving people. We are a forgiving society," Hoover said. "And Lord help us if we ever change from being that way."
Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) blasted the five-year waiting period as counter-productive.
"If they violate it again, they're going back. If they go back, they're going to lose their rights again," Neal said at the hearing. "It's an incentive for them to stay out to keep (the right to vote). Why would you extend it? It makes no sense."
Yet, Paul said he has learned about compromise, and HB 70 supporters should not lose sight of what they achieved.
"I would say five years is a lot less than infinity," Paul told reporters after the hearing. "So, it would be progress in the right direction."
Paul's testimony at the noon hearing is part of his larger strategy to address what he views is a criminal justice system which disproportionately punishes blacks, especially related to the "War on Drugs."
"When you look at those who are being deprived of voting, I think they are disproportionately people of color," Paul told the committee.
"When you look at the prison population, three out of four people in prison are black or brown," Paul said. "Something's gone wrong in the war on drugs, there is a racial outcome."
Supporters of felon voting rights say Paul's efforts to expand his reach and appeal beyond traditional Republican demographics is working.
"He has the eye and ear of the African American community and some Latino communities," said Tayna Fogle of Lexington, "So I think it's expanded a great deal."
"He's not only helping himself," said Michael Hiser of Bullitt County. "He's helping his political career and his bid for the president."
"I don't know," Paul said when asked by WHAS11 whether the bill's progress is a result of his involvement. "I want to be part of this, and I hope I was helpful in bringing it forward. But, I don't really know if I can make that judgment."
Hiser said he turned his life around in prison after a number of drug-related convictions. Released from prison seven years ago, Hiser is now pursuing a master's degree while working as an adjunct professor at Jefferson Community and Technical College. His voting rights have not been restored.
"When I got out, I wanted to be a part of bettering the community and not making it worse," Hiser told WHAS11. "And so I want to vote, and I don't want to be just a part time citizen."
Under current Kentucky law, felons can petition the governor to reacquire the right to vote.
Tayna Foglee had to include character references and write an essay for then Governor Ernie Fletcher to restore her voting rights.
Citing literacy issues with many people in the criminal justice system, Fogle said requiring an essay "infringes another barrier for someone to become a citizen."
The measure now returns to the House which must decide whether to accept the changes. If the Senate version is rejected there, the competing bills would be discussed by a conference committee.
If lawmakers agree, the measure would go on the fall ballot for voters to decide whether to amend Kentucky's constitution accordingly.