Special Session & Other Updates, September 2021

Dear Friends, 

I wanted to take this opportunity to catch up with you, and to share some of my thoughts on the special legislative session held earlier this month. 

Some background…
During the 2021 regular session, Republican lawmakers filed and passed bills that removed authority from the office of the Governor, including his ability to issue public health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. The constitutionality of those bills are still to be determined by the courts.  In the meantime, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling that these new laws must be followed, effectively putting the state legislature in charge of managing the pandemic. 

Amid a surging delta variant, and with Gov. Beshear’s pandemic-related executive orders set to expire, the Governor called a special legislative session, held September 7, 8, and 9. 

What happened…
The legislative process was designed to be deliberative rather than speedy and nimble.  Nevertheless, the legislature moved at breakneck speed over the 3-day special session, introducing, revising, and passing bills out of the Senate or House chamber within a matter of hours.  In one particularly startling moment, a special meeting of the House Education meeting was called at 1:58 for a meeting to convene at 2:00!   While this frantic activity was taking place on the third floor of the Capitol, the Governor was on the first floor, announcing some of the most alarming COVID numbers our state has seen since the start of the pandemic. 

The House and Senate met for three days, ending their work just before midnight on Thursday.  By the time the final gavel fell, the General Assembly had passed four bills:

  • SB 1 focused on pandemic-related education and childcare issues.  The bill nullified the Kentucky Department of Education’s mask requirements for public schools, and bans all statewide mask mandates until 2023, doing away with the best tool we have to keep our kids and school staff safe at school.  As of last week, in JCPS alone, there were 3,172 positive student COVID cases and 14,967 student quarantines.  While SB 1 delegated decisions about mask requirements to local school boards, the bill removed other important tools for local districts to be able to keep their kids safe. I voted no.
  • SB 2 focused on healthcare.  Just moments before the House Health and Family Services Committee was scheduled to vote on the bill, members were presented a substitute version of the bill that nullified statewide mask mandates until 2023.  Meanwhile, the bill did not go nearly far enough to address dire concerns of healthcare provider shortages.  I voted no in committee and on the House floor. (Governor Beshear vetoed the ban on statewide mask mandates in both SB 1 and 2. The vetoes were hastily overridden, and the bills have passed into law.)
  • SB 3 appropriated roughly $69 million in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act to address pandemic-related concerns in healthcare, long-term care and education, including increased COVID-19 testing for health care providers, schools, local health departments, and correctional facilities.  The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.  I voted yes. 
  • SB 5 was the only non-pandemic related bill considered during the special session.  Now signed into law, SB 5 provides the possibility of new economic incentives for projects investing a minimum $2 billion into the state, with a sizeable new appropriation to the commonwealth’s Economic Development Cabinet. I support economic investment in Kentucky, new jobs training, and the promise of good, high-paying jobs for hardworking Kentuckians, and I understand the need for economic tools that will allow Kentucky to compete with other states for major investments. Still, I also believe in transparency, and with very few details about what these new business ventures may be, I struggled with how to vote on this bill.  I had many conversations, and asked lots of questions.  After considerable assurances from legislative leaders in both parties, through direct discussion with Governor Beshear about his strong support for the bill, and with great hope for a brighter economic future for Kentuckians, I took a leap of faith and voted yes on SB 5. 

At a cost to the public of about $70,000 per day for the special session, I believe Kentuckians were better served under the COVID-19 emergency orders already in place, and under the leadership of a Governor who believes in science.  But elections have consequences….

And then there was this…
The special session provided not only an opportunity for poor legislative process and the passage of risky bills, but also the spread of dangerous misinformation (See “Kentucky lawmakers push conspiracy theories, debunked claims during COVID special session” https://bit.ly/2Xud08y ), and disgraceful political grandstanding. 

The most ludicrous and offensive example of both was a gratuitous and inflammatory anti-immigrant rant on the House floor.  As if the speech weren’t bad enough, it was met with enthusiastic applause from most members of the House.  I want to express my respect and appreciation for my colleague Rep. Nima Kulkarni, an immigration attorney and immigrant herself, for her calm and clear response to both the content and ugly tone of these remarks.  Representation matters. 

You can view the exchange here: https://youtu.be/m5vtCcWZwWo

In other news…
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.  I was glad to sit down with Spectrum News’ Mario Anderson as his guest on In Focus Kentucky: https://spectrumnews1.com/ky/louisville/in-focus-shows/2021/09/06/lisa-willner-on-in-focus-ky

If you or someone you know is needing crisis support, here are resources:

  • Louisville Crisis and Information:  502-589-4313
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline:  1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line:  Text “HOME” to 741741
  • Trans Lifeline:  1-877-565-8860 (10am-4am)
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline:  1-800-799-SAFE

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A lawsuit on HB 563, the law that would indirectly divert public dollars to unaccountable “opportunity accounts” for private school tuition is being heard in court.  This story on Spectrum News includes excerpts of my comments opposing this problematic law: https://bit.ly/39jXpem
 

We’re scheduled to be back in session again in January, and you can reach out any time.  You can reply directly to this message, or reach me at my legislative email: Lisa.Willner@lrc.ky.gov.  You can also leave a phone messages for me at my Frankfort office: 502-564-8100. 
 
Stay safe, be well!

Lisa