Kentucky Politics

The Republican-led Kentucky legislature is moving quickly with bills to alter the governor’s emergency powers, restrict abortions and allow businesses to stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday was the first day of this year’s legislative session and Republicans made good on their promise to weaken Kentucky governors’ powers, both during states of emergency like the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

Sen. Matt Castlen, a Republican from Maceo, is the sponsor of the Senate’s top-priority bill, Senate Bill 1. The measure would limit the governor’s emergency orders to 30 days unless the legislature votes to extend them.

Castlen said that it is no longer important for the governor to have as much independent power as he currently does.

“In 2021, the General Assembly can gather quickly and efficiently. It is especially important for us to be part of the decision-making process when our state’s economy, your livelihood or your freedoms hang in the balance,” Castlen said.

Republican lawmakers have been frustrated that they have had little input into managing the state’s coronavirus response.

Kentucky’s part-time legislature disbands on April 15th during even-numbered years and March 30th during odd-numbered years, leaving Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear in charge of handling the pandemic for most of last year.

Castlen’s bill would essentially force Beshear to call the legislature back into session if he wants to renew an emergency order after the legislature adjourns on March 30th this year.

Beshear has criticized the attempt to weaken his emergency powers as unconstitutional.

The measure, along with several others, were given first readings on Tuesday, signaling that Republican lawmakers intend to fast-track passage of the bills, possibly as soon as Saturday.

Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Crofton, is the sponsor of another priority bill, Senate Bill 9, known as the “born alive” abortion bill.

The measure would make it a felony if doctors don’t “take all medically appropriate and reasonable steps to preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant.”

A similar version of the bill passed last year, but Beshear vetoed it, saying that current law already protects such cases.

In the Republican-led House, the top priority seeks to allow businesses and schools to stay open as long as they have a plan in place that “meets or exceeds CDC guidelines.”

Rep. Bart Rowland, a Republican from Tompkinsville, said that as long as businesses post their plans, customers can decide whether or not they want to support them.

“So basically we’re saying going forward if you can do those things, Kentucky businesses, you don’t have to worry about a third shutdown,” Rowland said.

During his daily briefing on Tuesday, Beshear said that the bill wouldn’t succeed in protecting businesses or individuals.

“It’d be taking very explicit executive orders that you can read and understand who’s involved, and replace it with something nebulous that you’ve got to Google to go out and find,” Beshear said.

The House also advanced House Bill 2, which would give the attorney general authority to enforce abortion regulations currently reserved for the state’s health cabinet.

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron praised lawmakers for advancing the measure out of the House Judiciary Committee.

“It is my job as the Chief Law Officer for the Commonwealth to ensure that abortion providers follow the law and are not given special treatment or blanket exemptions, as they were during the start of this pandemic,” Cameron wrote in a statement.

Lawmakers implemented several procedural changes in response to the coronavirus.

House members will be allowed to cast votes from their Capitol Annex offices for votes in committees and on the floor. If a representative contracts coronavirus or feels like they have been exposed, they will be allowed to vote from the Capitol parking lot, but still won’t be allowed to vote from home.

Senate members will be allowed to vote from their offices for committee hearings, but will be required to cast votes in person for floor votes.

The first day of the legislative session also drew a small group of protesters who left threatening messages on yard signs outside the Capitol building.

According to Herald Leader photographer Ryan Hermens, one of the signs called for Beshear’s impeachment and included the message “make hanging traitors great again.”

Beshear dismissed the protest as insignificant.

“They were outnumbered by yard signs,” Beshear said. “I’m just not intimidated by yard signs.”

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