Kentucky lawmakers make changes to process due to virus
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers took unprecedented steps to change their way of doing business to keep their distance from each other as they reconvened Wednesday amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
House leaders announced changes to the voting process in the 100-member chamber to limit the number of lawmakers on the House floor. The Republican-led legislature reconvened at the statehouse after a nearly weeklong break to pass a new state budget.
The legislative session resumed a day after Kentucky had its worst day from the coronavirus pandemic with 114 new cases and seven virus-related deaths.
On Wednesday, Gov. Andy Beshear reported 93 new coronavirus cases and two more deaths linked to the illness — a 60-year-old man from Daviess County and a 76-year-old woman from Hopkins County. Total statewide cases approached 700 and the death toll reached 20.
Beshear urged people to “dig a little bit deeper” to follow guidelines -- such as avoiding crowds and following social-distancing measures -- to help slow the virus’s spread.
The state is in the midst of an expected surge in coronavirus cases, the governor said.
“Our rate of increase is lower, at the moment, than anticipated, and that’s a good thing overall for our health-care capacity,” Beshear said during his daily coronavirus briefing.
The threat from the virus changed how the state House conducted its business Wednesday.
Under a change to the chamber’s rules, House members agreed to vote in groups of 25. They also were allowed to vote by paper ballot. Those ballots were electronically submitted to a designated lawmaker on the House floor who then formally cast the votes on behalf of their colleagues.
Only a handful of lawmakers were on the House floor as the day’s work progressed Wednesday.
House Republican leaders referred to the steps as a “legislative first.” The change was made after House leaders consulted with legal scholars, former judges and public policy experts. The goal was to limit the number of people on the House floor while ensuring lawmakers were able to cast votes.
The social-distancing steps were a big departure from the usual process, where lawmakers work closely together with frequent face-to-face conversations.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a historic challenge for our commonwealth and the Kentucky House of Representatives is willing to take equally historic steps to meet our constitutional obligations to the people of Kentucky,” Speaker David Osborne said in a statement.
Legislative leaders have drawn some criticism for continuing the session amid the pandemic.
In the Senate, two committees met in the more spacious Senate chamber on Wednesday instead of committee rooms to allow lawmakers and others to spread out. A couple of senators wore protective face masks.
Later in the day, Democratic Sen. Robin Webb said lawmakers were putting themselves and others at risk by meeting Wednesday to pass a budget that could have been finished weeks earlier.
“We have asked our people to make sacrifices and be indoors and stand back and do all the things that we have been unable to do, and we’ve been unable to lead by example,” she said.
On Monday, it was disclosed that a staff member for the legislature had tested positive for the virus. The staff member is “recovering and doing relatively well given the circumstances,” Jay Hartz, director of the Legislative Research Commission, said in an email to LRC employees.
The staffer had not worked at the Capitol complex since March 16, when Hartz announced guidelines permitting LRC employees to stay home through March, Hartz said. Areas of the building were “cleaned as thoroughly as possible” before employees return, he said.
Most people who contract COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms, which can include fever and cough but also milder cases of pneumonia, sometimes requiring hospitalization. The risk of death is greater for older adults and people with other health problems.