(The Center Square) - Republicans in the Kentucky legislature are wasting no time in trying to exert some control over the COVID-19 restrictions Gov. Andy Beshear has put in place. On Thursday, both the state House and Senate passed bills that seek to curtail the Democratic governor’s control.
House Bill 1, which allows businesses or schools to remain open under certain conditions, passed that chamber by a 70-25 vote. Senate Bill 2, which would place limits on certain orders, passed by a 31-6 margin.
On Friday, both bills were approved by committees within the opposite chambers, setting them up for quick votes on the floors.
HB1, sponsored by state Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, would allow any business or school to remain open if they can develop operational procedures based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and offer explanations on how they will keep customers, students and employees safe.
“Since the first executive order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 6 of last year, Kentuckians have been subject to arbitrary and crippling restrictions which have led to unimaginable losses for working Kentuckians, their children’s education and livelihoods,” Rowland said in a statement Thursday. “This measure will give the reassurance that our businesses, especially retail and restaurant, that there will be no future shutdowns due to COVID-19.”
State Rep. Rachel Roberts, D- Newport, voted against the bill saying she didn’t see how it made people safer.
On Wednesday “we reported the highest number of new cases in our state,” she said on the floor. “I fear this bill could actually speed up the threat of COVID-19 and make our workers less safe."
Roberts, who owns a yoga studio, said CDC guidelines do not always match the state’s requirements. In some cases the state is stricter. For example, the CDC says fitness facilities like her business should consider requiring cloth facemasks while the state mandates their use.
Three Republicans joined 22 Democrats in opposing the bill, although state Rep. Savannah Maddox, R-Dry Ridge, tweeted that she opposed the bill because of the CDC language. (https://twitter.com/SavannahLMaddox/status/1347235802972123136)
“It would’ve been a great bill otherwise,” she said.
HB1 has a couple of other provisions. One waives any penalties or interest on late unemployment insurance taxes.
State Rep. Russell Webber, R-Shepherdsville, said Kentucky businesses face a $100 per worker hike in their unemployment insurance premiums.
“To add insult to injury, employers who have paid into the fund for years would be forced to cover the cost of repaying benefits paid to those who are not traditionally covered,” said Webber, who chairs the House Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment.
Another HB1 provision bars the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services from preventing visitors at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Instead, the cabinet would be required to craft guidelines for homes to allow visitors if it’s deemed vital to the resident’s well-being.
SB2 would limit some emergency orders to only 30 days if they imposed restrictions on gatherings or required mandatory quarantines. Also on Thursday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1, that deals with similar issues for orders on schools, businesses and nonprofits, by a 27-9 vote.
State Sen. Stephen West, R-Paris, said he sponsored SB2 because it’s important to have transparency and legislative oversight on regulations.
“When agency regulations are promulgated and accepted, they become the law of the land,” he said. “They are where the rubber meets the road.”
Six of the eight Democrats in the Senate voted against SB2.
“Do not let the politics of this pandemic, do not let what has happened on a national level, affect the ability of this state and the people of this state to respond appropriately and be kept safe,” said state Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville.
In testifying before the House State Government Committee Friday, West said legislative committees would get a chance to review orders and if they find them deficient, it will give the governor a chance to amend them.
While the committee approved the bill by a wide margin, some Democrats said neither the public nor lawmakers are getting a chance to properly vet these bills.
“We’re moving way too fast,” state Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green said.
Both bills carry emergency provisions, which mean they would take effect immediately. While Beshear is widely expected to veto the bills, its highly likely Republicans will have enough votes to override those.