FRANKFURT, Ky. (AP) – Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Saturday announced he is calling the Kentucky Republican-led legislature for a special session to shape pandemic policies as the state grapples with an increase record number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The return of lawmakers to the State Capitol begins Tuesday and marks a dramatic power shift in coronavirus-related policymaking in Bluegrass State following a landmark court ruling. Since the pandemic hit Kentucky, the governor has mostly acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, but the state Supreme Court has transferred those rulings to the legislature.
“Now, much of that burden will fall on the General Assembly,” Beshear said on Saturday. “He will have to carry a lot of that weight to face unpopular choices and make decisions that balance a lot of things, including the possible life and death of our citizens. “
Beshear alone was empowered to call an extraordinary session and set its agenda. At a press conference on Saturday, he described the pandemic issues he wants lawmakers to consider, including policies on mask wearing and school hours amid increasing school closures due to virus epidemics. But the qualified majorities in the GOP House and the Senate will decide what measures are ultimately adopted.
Beshear told reporters on Saturday that he had had good conversations with key GOP lawmakers and that a bill had been traded.
Republican House Speaker David Osborne said the proposals put forward by lawmakers were “the culmination of 18 months of research, discussion and contributions from groups and individuals directly involved in the response to this pandemic.” .
“While we do not yet agree on the specific wording of the legislation we will be considering, we are continuing discussions and have agreed that it is in the best interest of our Commonwealth to move forward with the appeal, “Osborne said in a statement.
Lawmakers will be urged to extend the state of emergency linked to the pandemic until mid-January, when the legislature returns to regular session, Beshear said. They will be asked to review his virus-related decrees and other actions of his administration, the governor said.
On the issue of masks, the governor said his call “will ask them to determine my ability to require a mask in certain situations, depending on where the pandemic is taking place and the severity of any area” .
Beshear ordered statewide mask warrants to deal with previous outbreaks of the virus and said on Saturday he considered that authority “absolutely necessary” to combat the delta variant. Recognizing that the issue will be controversial, he suggested a more targeted approach.
“If they don’t consider providing that authority in general, I hope they will consider a threshold up to which they provide me with that authority,” the governor said.
Beshear also called on lawmakers to offer more flexibility in school hours as many districts have had to put in-person learning on hold due to outbreaks of the virus. Several ideas are being considered, he said, including allowing local school leaders to use a more tailored approach when moving to distance learning, allowing them to apply it to a single school or even to one classroom rather than the entire district. This idea was discussed at a recent legislative committee hearing.
Leading GOP lawmakers have signaled their preference for policies that favor local decision-making over state-wide mandates to tackle COVID-19.
Lawmakers will also be urged to appropriate remaining federal pandemic aid to “advance the fight” against the coronavirus, the governor said. The funding would support pandemic mitigation and prevention efforts, including vaccine testing and distribution.
More than 7,840 Kentuckians have died from COVID-19, including 69 deaths announced Thursday and Friday. The delta variant has put a record number of patients infected with the virus in Kentucky hospitals, including intensive care units and on ventilators. The state reported on Friday that nearly 90 percent of intensive care beds statewide were occupied.
“The delta variant is spreading at a rate never seen before, affecting businesses, closing schools and, worse yet, causing serious illness and death,” Beshear said on Saturday.
“We need as many tools as possible to fight this deadly wave in order to save lives, keep our children in school and keep our economy running,” he added.
Various emergency measures issued by Beshear are expected to expire following the court ruling two weeks ago. Lawmakers will decide whether to extend, vary or stop each emergency order, while putting their own stamp on the state’s response to COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, Republican lawmakers watched aside as Beshear led an aggressive response that included statewide mask warrants and strict limits on gatherings. Republicans criticized the governor for what they saw as overly broad and strict restrictions, most of which were lifted in June.
The state Supreme Court recently transferred these virus-related rulings to the legislature. The court paved the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose restrictions on viruses. Judges said a lower court wrongly blocked GOP-backed measures.