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Kentucky Legislature Pushes Forward, Meets Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Kentucky House
Kentucky's House of Representatives meets amid coronavirus outbreak.

As Kentucky works to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andy Beshear is urging the state legislature to either quickly pass a two-year budget or adjourn and return for a special session in the coming months.

After taking a two-day hiatus, the General Assembly has reconvened to try and pass more bills, ignoring recommendations by the CDC that people not gather in large groups in order to stymie the spread of coronavirus.

House Speaker David Osborne, a Republican from Prospect, said that lawmakers are working on an expedited schedule and hope to pass a budget next week.

Osborne has urged Beshear, a Democrat, to call the legislature into a special session immediately, a move that he says would give lawmakers flexibility to temporarily adjourn and reconvene in the coming months.

“If he’s going to call us into special session, call us into special session so we know we can leave here without a budget. Because right now, if we leave here without budget then we are in violation of our constitutional obligations,” Osborne said.

Republican leaders of the legislature and Beshear have implemented crowd-controlling measures that limit access to legislative meetings and the state Capitol to lawmakers, essential staff and reporters.

Some lawmakers aren't showing up. Only 83 of the 100 members in the House were present at the beginning of Tuesday's proceedings; 33 out of 38 senators were present.

Others are trying to avoid close contact with other lawmakers; several sat in the House Gallery while session took place -- voting by texting their seatmates.

The legislature has 13 more working days in this year’s session, which is required to end by the end of April 15.

Beshear said that Republican leaders of the legislature have requested an “open-ended” session that would allow them to consider a wide-range of issues.

During a news conference Tuesday, Beshear said that he would limit lawmakers to working on the budget and coronavirus-related issues if he called them back for a special session.

“To think during a state of emergency, where we are supposed to be all-in for this, for there to be any other type of negotiation about discussing other bills and legislation and things we don’t need to be dealing with right now, we are not going to do that,” Beshear said.

Only a governor has the power to call the legislature into special session in Kentucky. The order creating the session also includes parameters — legislation or issues that lawmakers are allowed to address during the session.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin called a special session last summer, his order only allowed lawmakers to consider a specific piece of legislation outlined by him.

Lawmakers are scheduled to consider about 20 bills in committee meetings on Wednesday and legislative leaders plan to quickly move priority bills in what might be the final days of the legislative session.

Beshear urged lawmakers to only focus on the budget and coronavirus-related measures and not ones that “get people fired up.”

“People are already on-edge and anxious out there. Why in the world would you do that? It’s not healthy and it’s not what we should be doing,” Beshear said.

House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hear Senate Bill 1, the anti-sanctuary cities bill, on Wednesday but the measure was scratched from the agenda late Tuesday night.

Speaker Osborne said the legislature would be considering several bills besides the budget and coronavirus response.

“If we’re going to be here, then we might as well be here to consider legislation that the people of Kentucky have sent us here to consider,” Osborne said.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, also advocated for considering other bills, albeit quickly.

“We get in, take the bills we can, prioritize them, move through the system and shoot to get out of here,” Stivers said.

For members of the public who want to watch legislative proceedings, Kentucky Educational Television has expanded its live coverage on its website.

This story has been updated.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.