FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) – Armed with veto-proof power, Republican lawmakers were off and running on their top priorities Thursday.
The third full day of the legislative session saw 10 bills – five in each chamber - being fast-tracked before Gov. Andy Beshear could give his State of the Commonwealth address later in the evening.
It was a lightning-fast day when the House zipped through measures that were aimed at reigning in Beshear’s emergency powers on display during the COVID-19 pandemic, changing the courts system and abortion issues, including one repeat bill from the 2020 session.
The five House bills could be passed as soon as Saturday if the General Assembly calendar is amended as expected.
While the bills are likely going to be vetoed by the governor, that won’t matter because the Republicans have super majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and can override any vetoes.
In the House on Thursday, House Bill 1, HB 2, HB 3, HB 4 and HB 5 made it through the second reading and will be sent to the Senate for consideration.
HB 1 takes on Beshear’s COVID-19 restrictions, which Republican leadership was unhappy with throughout the pandemic. It included requirements that fell hard on businesses, churches and schools.
Under the provisions of HB 1, any business or school may remain open and operational if they produce and follow an operating plan which adheres to applicable guidance issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and details how the business, or school will operate to allow employees and patrons to remain safe.
“Since the first executive order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 6 of last year, Kentuckians have been subject to arbitrary and crippling restrictions which have led to unimaginable losses for working Kentuckians, their children’s education and livelihoods,” said Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, the bill sponsor. “This measure will give the reassurance that our businesses, especially retail and restaurant, that there will be no future shutdowns due to COVID-19.”
HB 1 also includes unemployment relief for traditional employers. According to Rep. Russell Webber, Chair of the House Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee, it waives penalties and interest on late unemployment insurance taxes to give employers more time to pay their tax. Payments will not be considered due and will not be collected by the Labor Cabinet.
“We talk about this being a pro-business bill, but we are really talking about employers and the people they employ. HB 1 will provide the relief that many businesses need to stay open,” Webber added. “Without HB 1, employers face a $100 per employee increase in their unemployment insurance fees at a time when our economy is struggling. To add insult to injury, employers who have paid into the fund for years would be forced to cover the cost of repaying benefits paid to those who are not traditionally covered.”
Also, there are provisions to allow family visitation for children in foster care during an emergency and allows residents of nursing homes one designated “essential personal care visitor” who is exempt from any orders preventing visitation in nursing homes.
During the pandemic, Beshear’s orders had prevented visitations in November when the virus numbers were spiking.
Rep. Kim Moser, chair of the House Health and Welfare Committee, said, “Long-term care residents are among the most vulnerable to this virus and we must be prepared to take additional steps to protect them. However, the isolation created by this pandemic has proven equally dangerous. I’m extremely pleased to see the House take these steps to improve the quality of life for these residents.”
HB 2 is a rerun of a bill that Beshear vetoed in the 2020 session and that the legislature couldn’t override because they had adjourned for the session.
The bill, which passed 75-18, approves legislation that would codify and expand the Attorney General’s powers to seek criminal and civil penalties against abortion clinics who do not follow the letter of the law and regulatory requirements.
The measure is sponsored by Rep. Joseph Fischer of Ft. Thomas, “This legislature values the sanctity of human life, and we will do everything we can to give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. By giving the Attorney General more authority, we are one step closer to ensuring there are people in place to protect unborn children’s rights.”
HB 2 would grant the Attorney General the authority to seek injunctive relief and civil or criminal penalties in courts of proper jurisdiction to prevent violations regarding abortions or administrative regulations in cases where administrative penalties and legal sanctions are imposed.
“It is my duty to uphold and enforce Kentucky’s laws, and I appreciate the commitment of House Leadership and Representative Fischer to moving legislation forward that is consistent with this responsibility and will allow us to seek penalties against abortion providers if they violate the law,” said Attorney General Daniel Cameron. “Abortion providers should not receive special treatment, and this bill will ensure we can take the necessary actions to hold them accountable if the law is broken.”
Another part of that bill defines abortion as “elective” procedures, coming in response to abortions being considered “essential” procedures and being allowed to continue during the COVID-19 shutdown when elective surgeries were put on hold.
The House voted 69-24 to pass HB 3, legislation that would allow Kentuckians who file suit against state government or a state elected official to do so in the county of their residence. According to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. C. Ed Massey of Hebron, the measure expands access to the courts and ensures that Kentuckians across the state will have a voice in who decides these suits.
“Under current statute, the Franklin Circuit Court has more influence than any other. This essentially creates a super circuit by allowing judges elected by voters in one county to have judicial reach over state services that impact 4.4 million Kentuckians,” Massey said. “There’s no reason that someone in Pikeville or Paducah has to travel to Frankfort, it is overly burdensome and prevents people from seeking justice.”
Under the provisions of HB 3, the state will be divided into three judicial areas based on population and geography for the purpose of cases against the state. Plaintiffs may file suit in the county they reside in, while complaints involving multiple plaintiffs may be filed in any county where any plaintiff resides. Once a lawsuit is filed, the Chief Justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court will randomly select one circuit judge from each of the three newly created districts to form a panel to hear the case. Decisions made by the panel will be made by a concurrent majority and are appealable.
This bill also allows for virtual hearings to increase accessibility.
“We’ve learned a great deal from this pandemic, and one of our greatest takeaways is that technology can make state government more accessible and accountable to the people of Kentucky. HB 3 is a big leap, but we have received a great deal of positive feedback about virtual hearings and believe the time has come,” Massey added.
HB 4 is a constitutional amendment, meaning it would require approval from voters in the next election in 2022.
The General Assembly must finish their legislative session on March 30 in odd-numbered years and on April 15 in even-numbered years in the current setup. The proposed constitutional amendment eliminates those set dates from the constitution, effectively allowing the legislature to come in at any time of the year and would allow lawmakers to have 10 extra days each year if approved by three-fifths of each chamber of the General Assembly.
“Many of us have talked about this issue for several years and this bill was actually filed during the 2020 Session before the pandemic. However, it illustrates the critical need for legislators to have more options in managing the legislative calendar,” House Speaker David Osborne, the sponsor, said. “When the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on March 6, almost two-thirds of the 2020 Regular Session was already over. As a result, we were severely limited in both addressing the needs associated with the state of emergency and providing the necessary checks to the executive branch’s actions as called for in the Kentucky Constitution.”
HB 5 takes away the governor’s ability to temporarily reorganize executive branch cabinets, boards, agencies and commissions when the legislature is not in session. Legislative approval would be needed for any changes to the organizational structure of the executive branch.