Kentucky Politics

Republican lawmakers are gearing up for a possible special legislative session on coronavirus after a court hobbled Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency powers during the pandemic.

Only Beshear has the power to call lawmakers in for a special session. Both the governor and Republican leaders of the legislature say they are negotiating when to call the session and what policies to propose, including whether to renew the official state of emergency for the pandemic.

During a legislative meeting on Wednesday, Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron told lawmakers they “hold the keys” for the state’s emergency response.

“I hope that you all can come to agreement in terms of the governor’s office in terms of how ultimately you will handle additional measures to take in confronting COVID-19,” Cameron said.

The legislature passed a handful of laws limiting the governor’s emergency powers earlier this year. Beshear sued and a lower court initially blocked the measures from going into effect, but the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the ruling last month.

The ruling means Beshear’s emergency orders will expire after 30 days unless the legislature renews them.

That has sent Beshear and lawmakers scrambling. Even Republicans, who supported stripping Beshear’s emergency powers, still want to preserve some of his policies, including the coronavirus emergency declaration, which allows the state to respond to the pandemic more quickly and receive federal assistance.

With the possibility of a special session on the horizon, this week lawmakers are holding hearings about coronavirus in jails and prisons, schools, child care centers and hospitals. Some legislators have said they expect the session to start on Tuesday, Sept. 7, though Beshear hasn’t announced a date yet.

Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said the legislature is better equipped to respond to the pandemic than the governor because individual lawmakers have fewer constituents.

“We are by very definition closer to the people, we are the people’s branch of government,” Thayer said.

Republican legislators have fought for more control of the state’s emergency response since the beginning of the pandemic. They finally got their wish with last month’s court ruling, but it’s unclear what GOP lawmakers will do with that power to try and curb the spread of the virus.

Franklin Circuit Court has held off the state Supreme Court’s order for the Beshear-limiting laws to go into effect, waiting for the governor and legislative leaders to compromise on how to move forward by Sept 10.

Rep. Buddy Wheatley, a Democrat from Covington, said lawmakers should grant some emergency powers to the governor so he doesn’t have to go through the 138-member legislature every time he wants to renew a policy.

“What it takes between the legislature and the executive branch to put a plan into place takes time, days, collaboration hours,” Wheatley said. “It seems like that is where the governor is compelled to call a special session, not really by his own choice.”

On KET’s Kentucky Tonight on Monday, Republican House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade said the start of the special session will depend on how negotiations go.

“If we can get it right this week, you may see it very early next week,” Meade said.

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