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Governor's emergency powers draw scrutiny in Kentucky

Posted at 6:21 PM, Oct 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 18:22:02-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s Republican state treasurer urged lawmakers on Thursday to put restrictions on the Democratic governor’s ability to take executive action in an emergency.

Treasurer Allison Ball’s recommendation came at a time when the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus outbreak continue to surge in the Bluegrass State.

Ball offered a report criticizing Gov. Andy Beshear’s use of taxpayer funds to enforce his springtime restrictions on public gatherings such as religious services.

The leader of the GOP-controlled Senate said later that legislators are likely to review those broad gubernatorial powers when they convene next year.

Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley accused the state treasurer of “playing politics” in the midst of the public health crisis. Beshear reported 1,330 new virus cases Thursday — the state’s fourth-highest daily total — and 17 more virus-related deaths across Kentucky. Ball’s report came less than two weeks before the Nov. 3 election, and as many Kentuckians are voting early.

Ball’s report focused on Beshear’s order early in the pandemic that temporarily banned mass gatherings, including in-person religious services, and the use of state troopers and health department officials to ensure churches complied to help prevent the virus’s spread.

A federal judge ruled that Kentucky churches could hold in-person services. Compliance was widespread among churches and many switched to virtual services while the ban was in effect.

Ball said her report offered insight for lawmakers if they take up legislation to redefine the scope of the governor’s power to issue executive orders in times of emergency. She suggested that the law be amended to reinforce safeguards on religious, free speech and assembly rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s not fair to the people of Kentucky that they have to resort to federal courts to make sure that their constitutional rights are protected,” Ball said. “This could be dealt with pretty clearly if it’s included in legislation.”

Senate President Robert Stivers later told reporters that lawmakers will review the subject of emergency executive powers, saying: “I think we will clearly define what can be done.”

“Are there needs for (executive) powers? Without a doubt,” he said. “But what type of limitations can you put on them so people have the ability to have ... access to their church and access to the freedoms that are guaranteed by both the Kentucky and the United States constitution. And that doesn’t get waived in the time of pandemic.”

Republican lawmakers have complained for months that the Democratic governor, who was elected last year, hasn’t reached out to them to discuss his coronavirus-related actions. Republicans hold overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate.

Staley, the governor’s spokeswoman, noted that Beshear took the same steps as other governors to prohibit mass gatherings to try to contain the spread of COVID-19. Staley said the timing of Ball’s report, and its focus on the church-related order, was politically motivated with the election looming. She noted that the order dealing with religious gatherings was withdrawn in the spring.

“As a deacon in his church, the governor believes the treasurer is wrong to use faith to create fear and stoke division between Kentuckians,” Staley said in a statement.

Ball, in her second term as state treasurer, is among a group of Republican officeholders seen as rising political stars in Kentucky. While Beshear has faced some pushback against his virus-related actions, a new statewide poll showed that more than half of Kentuckians approve of his job performance.

At Thursday’s hearing, Republican lawmakers praised Ball for presenting the report. Democrats questioned her motives and lack of specifics on how much was spent to enforce Beshear’s orders.

“It reads much less like a treasurer’s report than it does by someone who maybe wants to run for higher office,” said Rep. Angie Hatton, a member of the House Democratic leadership team.

Ball said she wanted to submit the report sooner but didn’t get the documentation until last month.

Democratic Rep. Maria Sorolis told Ball that the mass gatherings order came at a time of uncertainty “when we were bleaching everything that came to our houses.”

“It’s very easy to Monday morning quarterback and say ‘this was overreach, that was overreach,’” Sorolis said. “But you weren’t in the arena. You weren’t having to call the shots.”

Ball became the latest prominent Republican to push back against Beshear’s pandemic-related actions. Kentucky’s Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, has joined in challenging the legality of Beshear’s orders to control the coronavirus outbreak by restricting public behavior. The state Supreme Court is reviewing the case.