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GOP lawmakers to focus on budget, governor's emergency power

Kentucky Legislature
Posted at 8:07 PM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 20:07:40-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Legislative Republicans who expanded their supermajorities in last month’s election were given a mandate by Kentucky voters to put limits on the Democratic governor’s executive powers in times of emergency, a leading GOP lawmaker said Wednesday.

Senate Republican leaders outlined main issues awaiting them when the General Assembly convenes in January for a 30-day session. Passing another state budget tops the agenda, but debate about limiting the scope of a governor’s emergency powers will be a priority, too.

Kentucky’s response to the coronavirus threat “pointed out holes” in state laws and the constitution, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said. Last month’s election — when Republicans expanded their lopsided majorities in the House and Senate — was a “cry for help” from Kentuckians responding to some of Gov. Andy Beshear’s virus-related actions, he said.

“I think Kentuckians sent a message on Election Day that they want Republicans to lead and lead with authority and to lead quickly to limit executive branch powers in the time that we’re in,” Thayer said. “And they are very upset with a lot of decisions made by Gov. Beshear and they want to trim the sails, so to speak, of the executive branch. Not just of this one but all governors in the future.”

The push to rein in the governor’s authority represents something of a turnabout from the position Republican lawmakers generally took with Beshear’s predecessor, GOP Gov. Matt Bevin, when they largely stood by as he wielded his gubernatorial powers. But Bevin didn’t confront a crisis on the scale of the global pandemic during his one term in office.

As Kentucky was hit by waves of COVID-19 surges, Beshear ordered restrictions on economic activity and public gatherings and halted in-class school instruction to try to contain the virus’s spread. The governor says his actions have saved thousands of lives.

GOP lawmakers will consider legislation that includes giving them a place at “the table to discuss when a state of emergency should be extended and for how long it should be extended,” Thayer said. They have criticized the governor for not consulting them on virus-related actions.

Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley responded that it’s “unfortunate” the governor is being attacked while he’s “focused on defeating COVID-19 and saving lives.”

“The next session should be about providing relief to individuals and businesses and investing in ways that create jobs and additional opportunities for Kentuckians,” Staley said. “This session can set Kentucky up to be a leader as we emerge from this pandemic. The Senate majority will have to choose whether it wants to partner with the governor ... or simply fight him.”

Bolstering the state’s pandemic-battered economy looms as a leading issue next year.

That includes efforts to provide liability protections for businesses that followed virus protocols to shield them from pandemic-related lawsuits, Thayer said.

Thayer touted another proposal that would allow the legislature to call itself into special session. That would require a constitutional amendment that would go on the 2022 ballot if approved by lawmakers. Currently, only the governor has the power to call lawmakers into special session.

The legislature’s own coronavirus-related protocols will alter the way lawmakers work, Senate President Robert Stivers said. That will restrict the number of issues they’ll be able to consider, along with the limited number of work days and the need to pass another state budget, he said.

Thayer predicted a “lean” agenda focused on a handful of key issues. That also fits into the governing philosophy of Republicans, he said.

“We are a conservative governing body and we should act like it,” he said

That means the legislature shouldn’t pass multitudes of bills “to deal with every little problem that people think government ought to solve,” he added.

Abortion and criminal justice are other issues looming in the upcoming session.

The abortion measures to be considered include one to require doctors to provide life-sustaining care for an infant born alive after a failed abortion attempt. The bill’s critics say existing law already protects the life of infants.

Lawmakers are expected to consider legislation to ban most no-knock search warrants in the state. It stems from the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed during a police raid at her Louisville apartment in March.