A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

GOP-led legislature passes six bills in first five days of session, four to limit governor’s powers

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

In rare Saturday meetings, the Kentucky General Assembly’s Republican supermajorities passed six of their priority bills, four aimed at limiting Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s powers and two to further regulate abortion and sent them to Beshear, who is expected to veto them and be overridden.

The bills passed in five days, the minimum under the state constitution. The legislature did likewise after Republicans took control of the House in 2017, allowing members of the party to pass several pieces of legislation that Democrats had bottled up in the house for years or decades.

In this case, Republicans were acting largely out of their unhappiness with Beshear’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his lack of consultation with them. Beshear and legislative Democrats said his actions had saved lives and some of the bills would make Kentuckians less safe.

Rep. Bart Rowland

House Bill 1, sponsored by Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, would allow businesses, schools, churches and nonprofits to remain open during a pandemic as long as they have a plan in place that meets the requirements of the least restrictive plan set forth by either the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the state administration.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, a physician who carried the bill in the Senate, told his colleagues Saturday that the governor had issued orders that were “arbitrary” and not based on research.

“Decisions were often made that were uneven in their application, decisions that produced confusion and anger, economic destruction, instability and division,” Alvarado said. “Covid-19 has created economic hardship unlike anything we have ever seen. While Kentucky has weathered recessions and economic downturns in the past, in 2020 businesses endured challenges brought about by policy intended to stop the spread of Covid-19.”

Earlier in the day, a Senate committee amended the bill to allow businesses and schools to follow the “least restrictive” guideline of the CDC or the state, in response to comments by Beshear Friday that some CDC guidelines have been more restrictive than the state’s.

The bill also suspends interest on unpaid unemployment insurance contributions until next year; provides guidelines for non-custodial parental visitation during the state of emergency; and would allow each resident of a long-term-care facility to designate an “essential personal care visitor” who would be exempt from visitor restrictions — a provision lauded by both Republicans and Democrats.

“The unintended consequences of prolonged physical separation and isolation on a resident’s overall health and well being are having real and devastating effects,” Rep. Kim Moser, R-Taylor Mill, said as she presented that portion of the bill to the House on Jan. 7.

The one Republican senator to vote against the bill was Tom Buford of Nicholasville. During the debate, he pointed out that it would allow “big-box stores” like Walmart, which have been allowed to stay open during the pandemic wit restrictions, to be exempt from paying employer unemployment contributions for 19 months, just like smaller stores.

Senate Democratic Leader Morgan McGarvey of Louisville said he couldn’t vote for HB 1 because there is a better way to get schools and businesses open across Kentucky: “We do it by forcing social distancing and getting a vaccine out there, but I haven’t seen any legislation come through this body to help with the distribution of a vaccine. We haven’t even talked about it.”

In support of the bill, Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-Greensburg, said: “Yes, the governor is responsible for trying to keep the citizens of this commonwealth physically safe, but in addition, we need emotional safety. We need financial safety. We need that balance of all those pieces. This legislation is in response to frustration, anxiety, fear. Is it perfect? I doubt it. Are the goals laudable? They are.”

HB1 passed out of the House Jan. 7 on a vote of 70-25. It passed out of the Senate with a committee substitute Jan. 9 on a vote of 28-7, for which the House concurred on a vote of 74-21.

Sen. Matt Castlen

Senate Bill 1, sponsored by Sen. Matt Castlen, R-Owensboro, would limit to 30 days Beshear’s executive orders that restrict the function of schools, businesses or nonprofits, unless they are extended by the General Assembly. It also applies to executive orders that regulate political, religious and social gatherings or impose mandatory quarantines or isolation requirements.

Castlen said he recognizes the need for a governor to issue executive orders in the middle of a crisis, but said after 30 days, it was time to involve those closest to the situation.

“When all authority is left to one person it can be reckless; unintended consequences happen,” he said while presenting his bill to the Senate Jan. 7.

SB 1 would also prevent the governor and the secretary of state from changing election procedures during an emergency without approval of the legislature. Beshear and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams changed procedures for the 2020 primary and general elections, under current law.

SB 1 passed the Senate on a vote of 27-9-1 on Jan. 7 and the House Jan. 9 by 75-21 with several floor amendments. The Senate accepted the amendments and passed the revised bill 26-5.

Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, would allow legislative committees to strike down a governor’s emergency administrative regulations.

It would require emergency regulations to include justification or evidence for the order; limit the order to 30 days if it affects education, businesses, nonprofits, local governments or places of worship; and establish rules to allow for expedited public hearings on the order.

SB 2 passed the Senate 31-6 and the House 74-21 with a floor amendment that the Senate accepted before passing the revised bill 29-4.

Rep. Michael Meredith

House Bill 5, sponsored by Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, would prohibit a governor from temporarily reorganizing state boards and commissions when the legislature is not in session. Meredith has said that this is necessary to prevent governors from changing boards “to push a political agenda.”

McGarvey strongly objected to the bill, saying it does not allow the governor to reorganize the agencies that are directly under his control.

“Today is an example where we are stripping the powers from a Democratic constitutional officer while adding powers to a Republican constitutional officer,” McGarvey said on the Senate floor. “We can say all we want that’s not what we’ve done or what we’re doing since I’ve been here, but our actions are speaking so loud that I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”

HB 5 passed the House 73-22 Jan. 7 and the Senate 29-7 Jan. 9.

Beshear is expected to veto all of the bills and both chambers are expected to override the vetoes upon their return to session Feb. 2.

Also on Saturday, the House formed a committee to consider a petition for Beshear’s impeachment, filed by four people and supported by about 50 others unhappy with his mandates. Speaker David Osborne “said he hasn’t read it, so he doesn’t know if the claims are serious, but that he has to take the accusations seriously,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. Osborne told reporters, “We don’t have any choice but to take action on it… It doesn’t even require a vote or anything. It just requires the committee act. And the committee’s action can be to do nothing.”

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