FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced Saturday that he’s calling the state’s Republican-led legislature into a special session to shape pandemic policies as Kentucky struggles with a record surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The return of lawmakers to the state Capitol starts Tuesday and marks a dramatic power shift in coronavirus-related policymaking in the Bluegrass State following a landmark court ruling. Since the pandemic hit Kentucky, the governor mostly acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, but the state Supreme Court shifted those decisions to the legislature.
“Now, that burden will fall in large part on the General Assembly,” Beshear said Saturday. “It will have to carry much of that weight to confront unpopular choices and to make decisions that balance many things, including the lives and the possible deaths of our citizens.”
Beshear wielded sole authority to call lawmakers into special session and to set the agenda. At a news conference Saturday, he outlined pandemic-related issues he wants lawmakers to consider, including policies on mask-wearing and school schedules amid growing school closures brought on by virus outbreaks. But GOP supermajorities in both chambers will decide what measures ultimately pass.
Lawmakers will be asked to extend the pandemic-related state of emergency until mid-January, when the legislature would be back in regular session, Beshear said. They will be asked to review his virus-related executive orders and other actions by his administration, the governor said.
Attorney and former Kentucky secretary of state Trey Grayson said the conversation goes far beyond the masks that typically leap to people's minds.
"If the executive orders expire, some of the money that Kentucky's been using to pay for vaccination programs and other things, the power to do that goes away," said Grayson. "So that's why it's pretty important that some of these, some of these executive orders are restored, some of those decisions."
He said federal dollars allocated to Kentucky to aid hospitals, nursing homes, testing programs in school and other resources available because of the state of emergency would vanish.
On the issue of masks, the governor said his call will “ask them to determine my ability to require masking in certain situations, depending on where the pandemic goes and how bad any area is.”
He also asked them to provide more scheduling flexibility for schools, as many districts have had to pause in-person learning because of virus outbreaks. And lawmakers will be asked to appropriate leftover federal pandemic aid to “further the fight” against the coronavirus.
Key GOP lawmakers have signaled their preference for policies favoring local decision-making over statewide mandates in response to the virus surge fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant.
More than 7,840 Kentuckians have died from COVID-19, including 69 deaths announced on Thursday and Friday. The delta variant has put record numbers of virus patients in Kentucky hospitals, including in intensive care units and on ventilators. The state reported Friday that nearly 90% of ICU beds statewide were occupied by patients.
Various emergency measures issued by Beshear are set to expire as a result of the landmark court decision issued two weeks ago. Lawmakers will decide whether to extend, alter or discontinue each emergency order, and they are expected to put their own stamp on the state’s response to COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, Republican lawmakers watched from the sidelines as Beshear waged an aggressive response that included statewide mask mandates and strict limits on gatherings. Republicans criticized the governor for what they viewed as overly broad and stringent restrictions on Kentuckians. The governor lifted most of his virus-related restrictions in June.
The state Supreme Court recently shifted those virus-related decisions to the legislature. The court cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus restrictions. The justices said a lower court wrongly blocked the GOP-backed measures.
Since the ruling, Beshear has been negotiating with lawmakers in anticipation of calling them into special session.