Kentucky Politics

This fall, Kentucky voters will weigh in on whether state lawmakers should be allowed to call themselves in for a special legislative session — a privilege currently reserved for the governor.

The move would significantly boost the power of Kentucky’s part-time legislature, which is normally only allowed to pass laws during the first few months of the year.

Republican lawmakers have thrown their support behind the effort, saying voters have demanded that the legislature rein in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear amid the coronavirus pandemic, even though a recent poll showed he has a positive approval rating.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, argued in favor of the move during a debate last week.

“During the summer of 2020, the people of this commonwealth lost their minds over the fact that we had a dictatorial governor who was acting unilaterally without listening to the elected people’s branch of government,” Thayer said.

Generally, special sessions are called so lawmakers can consider time-sensitive issues that can’t wait until the next regular session.

For example, Beshear called a special session last fall so lawmakers could renew the pandemic state of emergency after they stripped his power to do so on his own. Former Gov. Matt Bevin called a special session in 2019 to avoid an imminent spike in pension costs.

But lawmakers sometimes want the governor to call a special session when the governor doesn’t.

Take last year, when Republicans wanted Beshear to bring them to Frankfort to pass new redistricting maps. Beshear said he’d consider it if lawmakers shared their plans with him, but they refused.

Republican legislators say Beshear hasn’t been willing to work with them. Sen. Stephen Meredith, a Republican from Leitchfield, said the bill wouldn’t be necessary if lawmakers had a better relationship with the governor.

“We have work that we need done and this governor continues to refuse to communicate with this body and work with us to pass necessary legislation to help this state reach its full potential,” Meredith said.

The legislature passed a constitutional amendment last year allowing lawmakers to call themselves into a special session by joint proclamation of the House Speaker and Senate President. Since it would amend the state Constitution, that measure now has to be approved by a majority of voters on Election Day for it to become law.

During the current regular session, lawmakers are advancing a bill setting the parameters for what these legislative-enacted special sessions would look like — most importantly, that they would allow the General Assembly to meet for 12 additional working days a year, though lawmakers could informally meet more than that.

Republicans have rallied around opposition to Beshear’s coronavirus response, criticizing him for issuing executive orders that limited crowds and businesses early on in the pandemic.

GOP lawmakers passed a series of laws clipping the governor’s emergency powers last year, limiting his orders to 30 days unless renewed by lawmakers and requiring him to seek approval from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron if he wants to impose certain emergency measures.

But opposition to Beshear isn’t unanimous in Kentucky and a poll last week showed Beshear with a 60% job approval rating. Beshear also received high marks from both Republicans and Democrats for his response to the devastating December tornado that took the lives of 77 people in the state.

Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, cautioned Republican lawmakers from making permanent sweeping changes to how the state operates for political reasons.

“Here’s the one thing I can promise everybody: the current makeup of the General Assembly will change, and the party that’s in power today will not always be the power that’s in power in this body,” McGarvey said.

Democrats controlled the Kentucky legislature for most of the 20th century, and Republicans assumed control of both the House and Senate for the first time ever in 2017.

The legislature’s relationship with the governor’s office has changed significantly over the years. Until the late 1970s, Kentucky governors enjoyed near total control of the legislature, picking its leaders and largely writing the state budget.

After that, legislators began asserting their independence, wresting control of the lawmaking process from the executive branch. In 2000, the legislature began meeting every year, instead of every other, after voters approved a Constitutional amendment.

Beshear’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.