Lawmakers advance bills to limit governor’s COVID response

January 6, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this May 11, 2020, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear puts on a face mask after speaking to reporters at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP, File)
FILE - In this May 11, 2020, file photo, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear puts on a face mask after speaking to reporters at the Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP, File)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Rebuking the Kentucky governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, Republican lawmakers advanced bills Wednesday to limit his emergency powers and to keep businesses open amid the pandemic.

The measures, put on the fast track in the opening days of the 2021 session, reflect mounting GOP frustration with Gov. Andy Beshear’s use of his executive authority. His moves to put restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus have increasingly become politicized.

The House State Government Committee advanced a bill to allow Kentucky businesses and schools to stay open if they comply with federal virus-related guidelines. The measure, a priority of House Republicans, cleared the committee over Democratic objections.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee later approved a priority measure to limit the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers.

Beshear has criticized efforts to rein in his ability to respond to the pandemic, saying steps he has taken have saved lives. But Republicans have the votes to override his vetoes in both chambers.

The governor has noted that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the virus. Kentucky’s neighbor to the south, Tennessee, has been less forceful in imposing restrictions and requiring masks and now has among the highest per-capita case rates in the country.

Leading up to the session, GOP lawmakers had vowed to rein in the governor’s executive powers, and they’ve taken initial steps to follow through in the opening days of the session.

The House bill would allow Kentucky schools and businesses to remain open if their plans to protect people from COVID-19 meet or exceed federal health guidelines. The governor has announced new public health guidance for in-person learning in counties with high COVID-19 rates. Schools that comply may resume in-person learning on Jan. 11, even if they are in a county with high incidence rates of the virus.

Republican Rep. Bart Rowland, a lead sponsor of the House measure, said it would provide “clarity and reassurance” for businesses and schools shut down during the pandemic.

During the COVID crisis, Beshear has wielded his executive authority to put restrictions on businesses and the size of gatherings. Republicans said the bill was a response to complaints in their districts that the governor’s virus-related orders have been inconsistent.

“People want to do the right thing,” GOP Rep. Ken Upchurch said. “They want to protect themselves. But they also have to run their businesses and make a living.”

Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham termed the bill an “overreach” by lawmakers. Another Democrat, Rep. Kelly Flood, acknowledged the governor’s mandates were “extremely difficult at times on all of us,” but said Kentucky has fared better than other states in combating COVID because of Beshear’s leadership. Democrats questioned whether the bill would withstand a court challenge on separation of powers issues involving the branches of government.

Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel said the Senate bill was a good compromise. It would put an expiration date on executive orders issued in times of emergency without legislative approval.

McDaniel said he disagreed with many of Beshear’s COVID-related actions, but added: “I frankly think that the governor did what he felt called upon to do at the time.”

“We all know, and let’s just be frank, we’ve got calls to impeach the governor,” he said. “We’ve got people telling us to do nothing, everything he’s done is perfect.”

Republican lawmakers also continued quick action on abortion bills. A Senate panel on Wednesday approved a bill meant to protect lives of newborns, including any infant born after a failed abortion. Such a measure could also face a legal challenge.

On Tuesday, a House committee advanced a bill to give the state’s anti-abortion attorney general, Republican Daniel Cameron, greater authority to regulate abortion clinics. Beshear vetoed a similar bill last year, insisting it wasn’t necessary because “current law already protects any child born alive.”

Kentucky lawmakers have moved aggressively in recent years to put restrictions on abortions.