Republican lawmakers advanced another bill that seeks to limit Gov. Andy Beshear’s emergency powers related to the coronavirus pandemic, late during this year’s legislative session. The measure would also try to thwart court rulings that have upheld the governor’s emergency powers.
House Bill 217 would alter the state’s emergency laws, removing all specific examples of disasters that the state’s emergency management program should respond to — ranging from ice storms to nuclear attacks.
Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Republican from Dry Ridge and the bill’s sponsor, said removing that language would undercut last year’s Kentucky Supreme Court ruling against a challenge to Beshear’s emergency powers.
“It removes specific emergencies that the court read as justification for expansive powers for COVID and makes clear that emergency powers are delegated not just to protect life and property, but also the liberties of the people,” Maddox said.
Though the bill originally dealt with limiting how long the governor’s emergency orders remain in effect to 15 days, it was changed to focus instead on removing references to specific emergencies Thursday morning in a committee substitute.
Maddox said the measure would make it clear that the emergency powers are “not inherent to the executive branch.”
The state Supreme Court ruled last year that the pandemic is “precisely the type of emergency that requires a statewide response and properly serves as a basis for the Governor’s actions.”
The bill passed out of the House State Government Committee on Thursday and can now be voted on by the full House.
With five working days left in this year’s legislative session, Maddox said the bill can also be used to address “any other emergency powers issues that arise in the waning days of the session.”
Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd temporarily struck down parts of the bills earlier this month, saying they could “undermine, or even cripple, the effectiveness of public health measures” during the pandemic.
Maddox’s bill would also remove language that the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services “shall do all other things reasonably necessary to protect and improve the health of the people.”
Maddox said the change would ensure the cabinet goes through the legislature to enact emergency measures, rather than doing so autonomously.
“We have an administrative regulation process that can and should be relied upon to promulgate regulations pertaining to public health. I think that is perfectly sufficient to meet our public health needs,” Maddox said.
Rep. Patti Minter, a Democrat from Bowling Green, spoke against the bill, saying it would make it harder for the administration to respond to the pandemic.
“We don’t need to make it any harder for the cabinet to do their jobs. They’ve had a herculean task this year and we’re safer than people in surrounding states,” Minter said.
Rep. Ken Upchurch, a Republican from Monticello, voted in favor of the bill, saying the government shouldn’t require people to follow safety guidelines.
“We’ve heard about government keeping us safe and that just flies in the face, I think, of my personal responsibility. Government did not keep me safe during this pandemic. I kept myself safe,” Upchurch said.
The bill would have to move quickly to pass out of the legislature before Beshear’s veto period, which begins next Wednesday.