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Top lawmakers: Kentucky session will continue as scheduled

March 16, 2020 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s legislative session will continue as scheduled but with new safeguards in place to try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, top Republican lawmakers said Monday.

Lawmakers didn’t meet last Friday or Monday to allow officials to evaluate safety procedures. They are scheduled to reconvene Tuesday, which will be Day 47 in the 60-day session. Lawmakers are scheduled to meet until mid-April.

“We believe that the General Assembly has a responsibility to the people of Kentucky and our membership is committed to fulfilling that obligation,” House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers said in a statement.

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“However, we are putting in place a number of safety procedures based on the recommendations of public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” the GOP leaders added. “While this is a departure from business as usual, we are taking every step possible to use available technology to ensure transparency and accessibility.”

House Democratic leaders expressed concerns about proceeding as scheduled. They pointed to the federal government’s statements Monday that Americans should not gather in groups of more than 10 people over the next 15 days.

“We have asked our members who are 60 or older, who have health issues or who live with someone in these categories to stay home, at least in the near term,” top Democratic Reps. Joni Jenkins, Derrick Graham and Angie Hatton said in a statement. “We are asking all other caucus members to use their best judgment.”

For most people, coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

Beginning Tuesday, access to the Capitol Annex, where most committee hearings occur, will be closed to everyone but lawmakers, staff, members of the media and “specifically approved individuals,” the GOP legislative leaders announced. The annex is across the street from the Capitol.

Kentuckians will still be able to view legislative business through livestreaming services and broadcasting by Kentucky Educational Television, they said.

Other changes announced Monday include closing the House and Senate visitor galleries, limiting in-person attendance at committee meetings and suspending use of legislative pages, door keepers and other floor personnel. Officials are working to increase staffing of toll-free message lines as a way for people to communicate with legislators.

Osborne and Stivers indicated that further changes are possible as lawmakers continue evaluating the situation.

House Democrats said that if the legislature is to meet, lawmakers should consider only the budget and other critical bills to help people affected by coronavirus-related closures.

“Because of these and other reasons, we believe this situation is fluid and should be re-evaluated every day,” the Democratic House leaders said. “We cannot ask Kentuckians to take draconian steps if we are not willing to do them ourselves.”

Earlier Monday, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced that the state Capitol will close to nonessential personnel starting Tuesday.

“I am a person who ran on these doors being open for everyone all the time,” he told reporters. “We’re dealing with something that we could have never anticipated, and at the end my obligation is to keep people safe as we move forward.”

The governor also urged the GOP-led legislature to focus on sending him a new two-year state budget as quickly as they can as the state deals with the coronavirus threat.

Beshear presented his state spending plan to lawmakers in late January, and the state House recently passed its version of the budget. The Senate is working on its version. The differences typically end up being resolved in a conference committee of legislative leaders

Republican leaders have said they want to pass the budget soon enough to ensure lawmakers have a chance to consider overriding any vetoes by the governor.