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GOP lawmakers vote to check Kentucky governor’s COVID powers

February 3, 2021 GMT
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at a ceremony Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., to memorialize the more than 3,000 Kentuckians who have died from complications from COVID-19. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
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Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at a ceremony Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., to memorialize the more than 3,000 Kentuckians who have died from complications from COVID-19. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
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Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear speaks at a ceremony Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., to memorialize the more than 3,000 Kentuckians who have died from complications from COVID-19. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s Republican lawmakers delivered final votes Tuesday to limit the Democratic governor’s authority to order restrictions to combat COVID-19, sparking an immediate legal showdown over the extent of his executive powers in times of emergencies.

Wielding their supermajority power, GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate voted to override a series of vetoes issued last month by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The votes amounted to a repudiation of the governor’s nearly 11-month strategy to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Beshear immediately announced he had filed a lawsuit to block the measures, arguing the actions to restrict his executive authority violate the state constitution. He warned that “chaos would ensue” in the fight against the pandemic if the measures are allowed to undercut his actions. The governor maintains the steps he has taken to limit activity during the pandemic have saved lives.

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“Today, the General Assembly attempted to surrender to COVID-19 and accept the casualties,” Beshear said in a news release. “As your governor, I cannot let this happen. I have filed this action to continue to fight for the protection of all Kentuckians.”

The measures include emergency clauses allowing them to take effect immediately, but the governor is seeking temporary injunctions to block them until the legal dispute is settled.

Kentucky has fared better than many other states in battling the pandemic, the governor said. The Bluegrass State has reported more than 3,800 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began, far fewer per capita than some of its neighbors, including Tennessee and Indiana.

“The lesson is clear: When a governor takes action, his or her state experiences fewer deaths,” Beshear said. “When a governor does not, the results are tragic.”

Republican lawmakers methodically pushed ahead with the series of override votes, knowing of Beshear’s threat on Monday to mount a legal challenge if they did so.

Republicans saw their votes as putting checks on what they view as Beshear’s overreach with his orders putting restrictions on businesses, schools and individuals. They have criticized him for not consulting with them before taking his actions.

“We gladly look forward to having a seat at the table representing all corners of Kentucky in the decisions going forward,” said Republican Sen. Matt Castlen.

Beshear counters that members of his team have made repeated appearances before legislative committees to discuss the state’s COVID response.

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Unable to muster enough votes to preserve the governor’s unhindered authority, Democratic lawmakers issued dire warnings Tuesday about the possible consequences.

Mentioning the flags planted on the statehouse grounds to honor Kentuckians who died from the virus, Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton said: “There could have been a whole lot more” without Beshear’s actions.

“We need to keep in mind what our grandchildren will think of our actions at this time,” Hatton added. “When they ask, ‘What did you do, grandma or grandpa, when this pandemic was raging? What did you do to help?’ I want to be on the right side of history.’”

The legislature completed fast-track work last month on the measures to rein in the governor’s executive powers. Passage of the bills dominated the early portion of this year’s session.

Lawmakers immediately took up the veto overrides Tuesday on their first day back in session after an extended break.

GOP lawmakers voted to override a vetoed bill that would limit the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. It applies to orders that restrict in-person meetings of schools, businesses and religious gatherings or impose mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.

Under another bill that won a veto override, businesses and schools would have to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from the governor or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They could follow whichever standard is least restrictive. Democrats warned that measure would cause greater confusion and cede authority to the federal government.

In condemning that measure, Beshear said Kentuckians would have to pore over stacks of CDC guidance documents in determining which standards to follow.

Republicans also overrode Beshear’s veto of another bill that would give legislative committees more oversight and control over the governor’s emergency administrative regulations. The governor is also challenging that measure in his lawsuit.

It’s the latest round of court fights over Beshear’s response to the pandemic. Last year, Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to issue coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.