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Kentucky lawmakers convene amid COVID-19 challenges

January 5, 2021 GMT
Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Sarah Combs swears in David Osborne as Speaker of The House in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
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Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Sarah Combs swears in David Osborne as Speaker of The House in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
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Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Sarah Combs swears in David Osborne as Speaker of The House in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers flexed their political muscle as Kentucky’s legislature convened Tuesday, promoting legislation to scale back the Democratic governor’s emergency powers and give the state’s anti-abortion attorney general new authority to regulate abortion clinics.

Kentucky lawmakers opened their 2021 session with safeguards in place amid the challenges of meeting as the COVID-19 pandemic poses a public health threat.

The agenda will likely be dominated by budget and pandemic-related issues. Republicans bolstered their legislative supermajorities in last year’s election, giving them the numbers to override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

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On day one, House and Senate Republicans touted bills to rein in the governor’s executive powers in times of emergencies. One measure would limit executive orders to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. Another bill would allow Kentucky businesses to stay open if their COVID responses meet or exceed federal health guidelines.

“We will not repeat having one person in total control for the amount of time without input from the people’s branch of government,” said Republican Sen. Matt Castlen.

During the COVID crisis, Beshear has wielded his executive authority to put restrictions on businesses and the size of gatherings, which some GOP lawmakers branded as an abuse of power.

Beshear credits his actions with saving lives, noting 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 among the highest per-capita case rates in the country.

The governor criticized the bills to limit his executive authority but said his focus Tuesday was on the coronavirus vaccine rollout and his budget preparations.

House Speaker David Osborne promised an “aggressive agenda” from the outset to overcome time limitations for lawmakers. That includes an accelerated pace in crafting the budget, he said.

“We will hit the ground running,” he said Monday evening on Kentucky Educational Television. “We will have committee meetings immediately and begin working on legislation right away.”

Lawmakers followed through Tuesday, as a House committee quickly advanced the bill to give Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron greater authority to regulate abortion clinics.

Beshear vetoed that proposal last year when it was included in a larger abortion bill that passed shortly before the legislative session ended, which prevented lawmakers from overriding the veto. Kentucky lawmakers have moved aggressively in recent years to put restrictions on abortions.

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Topping the agenda for the 30-day session will be passing another one-year state budget. Last year, lawmakers approved a slimmed-down, one-year budget — rather than the traditional two-year spending plan — after the coronavirus outbreak created financial uncertainty.

Beshear will unveil his spending proposals and other priorities Wednesday evening in his State of the Commonwealth address, to be delivered virtually because of the pandemic.

As in the latter stages of the 2020 session, lawmakers again face the challenge of conducting business amid the ongoing threat from COVID-19.

Lawmakers wore masks in the House and Senate chambers as they began the new session. They are required to wear them in the chambers and in other public settings at the Capitol complex, the top House and Senate Republican leaders said. Senate President Robert Stivers urged compliance to protect people at greater risk from the virus.

“We will do the best we can to encourage it and police it,” Stivers said Monday evening on KET.

House members will be allowed to vote remotely from their statehouse offices to help keep people spread out in a chamber that, in normal times, is crammed with 100 members, along with staff.

“I think putting 100 people in that room, masks or not, is an iffy situation,” House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins said.

Committee meetings will be limited to one hour, half the usual time set aside, to allow more time for sanitizing rooms between meetings, Republican leaders said. Lawmakers will be allowed to participate remotely at committee hearings.

Virus-related precautions will result in a slower process and fewer bills being considered this session, Stivers said.

“We’ve told our caucus, don’t expect a lot of things to move,” he said Monday evening.

Another likely COVID-related priority for GOP lawmakers is an effort to shield businesses from lawsuits if they followed virus protocols.

A proposal to ban most no-knock search warrants is also expected to be considered. It stems from the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed during a police raid last March at her Louisville apartment. Lawmakers could take up other bills dealing with criminal justice, public pensions, medical marijuana and the legal status of historical racing games offered by some horse tracks.

This year’s legislative session is scheduled to wrap up in late March.