Legislative Update 3/21/2020

What a time this is!  I agree wholeheartedly with Governor Beshear in saying, “We are being called to change our lives to protect those around us. And it’s something that’s going on all around the world. This is our test as a generation. This is our time to show that we put our neighbors and our country ahead of just a bottom line. That we don’t look to be the exception; we look to be the volunteer. We look to be the person that will step up and do what it takes.”

Throughout this week, I’ve heard from so many of you about the numerous ways your lives and livelihood have been disrupted.  I’ve also seen and heard countless examples of acts of kindness and generosity as neighbors and friends find novel and creative ways to support and protect one another.  Healthcare workers, grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and others have overcome their own challenges to continue serving us, and many small businesses, civic, and charitable organizations have found ways to help many people navigate emerging challenges.   

Thank you to all of you who’ve gone above and beyond for our community – and thank you to so many of you for staying home and, when going out, for practicing social distancing and other CDC recommendations to “flatten the curve” in the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, back in Frankfort…  

Positive news:
Governor Beshear and his administration have kept Kentuckians informed, and have taken many tough but necessary steps in efforts to protect us.  The state has also eased many rules and regulations in order to streamline access to services for those who have lost their jobs and may now qualify for state assistance.

This week, the House moved two significant bills forward that will build on this relief.  Senate Bill 177 would waive requirements to give schools the flexibility they need to finish the school year after prolonged closures, and Senate Bill 150 would provide similar flexibility with regard to unemployment benefits, healthcare access, small business relief, etc., by explicitly extending authority to the executive branch and health officials to do what is necessary to support Kentuckians and limit the spread of the coronavirus.

On the negative side:
 As the CDC and World Health Organization have strongly recommended against gathering in groups of larger than 10, I’ve been dismayed by the message the General Assembly is sending to the public by continuing to convene in large numbers, and in close quarters.   In Georgia, one legislator testing positive for COVID-19 led to a call that every legislator there self-isolate, and over a dozen other state legislatures have  left their capitals altogether in response to the global pandemic.

I was honestly astonished to learn on Monday evening that KY’s legislative leaders had made the irresponsible decision to call us back into session on Tuesday, to continue meeting despite CDC warnings, and despite the public being barred from the Capitol.  I respect the decisions by several colleagues to follow public health guidelines and not participate in in-person meetings this week.  I wrestled with that decision myself, and ultimately decided to attend session each day, but to remove myself from the chamber and participate from the House Gallery.

While Governor Beshear promised to call the General Assembly back into special session in the weeks ahead to enact emergency measures and the state’s budget, legislative leaders regrettably chose not to go that route.  As a result, and with the Capitol complex closed to the general public, the House and Senate took up numerous bills this week that had nothing to do with supporting Kentuckians through the current emergency, and others that would be actively harmful, such as Senate Bill 2 which achieved final passage this week.    

SB2 adds a barrier to voting by requiring specific forms of photo ID.  Current law already requires voters to show some form of ID, and experts testified that this type of photo ID law is associated with suppressed voter turnout, particularly for older and younger voters, poor people, people of color, women who have changed their names, and people with disabilities. If we’re going to consider voting legislation during a crisis, it should be to extend hours at the polls, and to allow early, excuse-free, and mail-in voting.    

On Thursday, we received the Senate version of the state budget. While I had grave concerns about the House version of the budget, the Senate version is far worse.  This version withholds more than $1 billion from the teachers’ retirement fund if unspecified changes are not made in the next two years to limit benefits for new teachers. Inexplicably, the Senate version of the budget also scales back tens of millions of dollars that our public health departments desperately need.  At a time when the critical role teachers and public health departments play is more evident than ever, it is difficult to understand how the majority of KY Senators voted in favor of this plan. Members of House and Senate leadership will be working together over the coming days to hammer out a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the budget. 

At this time, we are scheduled to resume the last few days of the 2020 General Assembly next Thursday. I will continue to update you on further developments and, for now, here are some important websites and phone numbers.  To access the state’s public-assistance programs, please visit https://benefind.ky.gov or call 1-855-306-8959.  For Medicaid, the customer-service line is 855-459-6328, and the website is https://healthbenefitexchange.ky.gov

For unemployment insurance, the website is http://www.kewes.ky.gov/, while the main number for claimants is 502-564-2900.  Be aware that, due to the spike in unemployment payments, these applications are currently being accepted on a staggered basis.  

This information and more can be found on a new website the administration has created as a single source  listing every state order and action:  https://governor.ky.gov/covid19.

In closing, please remember to be kind and compassionate to yourself, and to everyone around you. Behavior change is difficult, even in the most conducive circumstances and even when we want to change our behaviors.  Having to adapt to an ever-changing reality, and asking for behavior change on a global scale will be a challenge for all of us, and will likely bring out the best and the worst of us.  This is a great opportunity to extend some extra grace and understanding to ourselves and others.      

Be safe, be well.