Kentucky Politics

The Kentucky legislature will not meet for a week due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The news comes after lawmakers continued to meet despite warnings about the seriousness of the disease and the need for people to not gather in large groups to prevent its spread.

Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker David Osborne announced Thursday afternoon that after the day’s business, the legislature would adjourn until March 26.

Osborne said that the legislature’s main focus would be passing a budget and bills that would help the state deal with the pandemic.

“And certainly we will pass a budget that may not be using the most reliable numbers, they’re the only numbers we have right now,” Osborne said. “But if we don’t pass one, then there are some real consequences.”

Legislators will meet for one day on March 26, then meet again on April 1 to pass a final version of the budget and finally on April 14 and 15 to potentially override any vetoes issued by Gov. Andy Beshear.

Stivers left the door open for lawmakers to come back sooner depending on the severity of the outbreak.

“We can come back on the 13th, we can come back on the 10th,” Stivers said. “What will dictate to us — but not mandate to us — is how the coronavirus escalates. It may be limited, or it may be catastrophic, we don’t know. That’s what will influence our decisions.”

Before and after the announcement, lawmakers continued to meet and pass bills, largely out of sight of reporters and the public — general access to the Capitol has been shut down because of the outbreak and most reporters who cover the legislature are working remotely out of fear of catching or spreading the disease.

On Thursday evening, the House and Senate passed the final version of the voter ID bill, a measure that would provide several ways for people to vote without IDs but that critics say will create confusion.

Across the legislature, several bills advanced out of committees, including a measure to restrict the governor’s pardon power, create new rights for crime victims and allow the legislature to call itself into special session, a power currently reserved for the governor.

Plus, the state Senate unveiled and passed a budget that would hold back $1.1 billion in funding for the teachers’ pension fund unless the legislature makes changes to benefits for future teachers — a controversial proposal that triggered massive protests in 2018.

On Wednesday, Providence Republican Rep. Jim Gooch downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, saying the state should go about business as usual.

“We do run the risk of mass hysteria when we try to make people believe that we can’t continue the business that we need to,” Gooch said.

This year’s legislative session must end on April 15. The legislature is required to pass a state budget by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Gov. Beshear has said he would be willing to call lawmakers back for a special session to deal with the budget and coronavirus issues.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.