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Kentucky Lawmakers Shift Power Away From Governor

The Kentucky State Capitol on 4/9/20, lit up green in memory of those who died from COVID-19.
The Kentucky State Capitol on 4/9/20, lit up green in memory of those who died from COVID-19.

Kentucky lawmakers reshaped state government during this year’s legislative session, limiting Gov. Andy Beshear’s powers while shifting authority to the legislature and state offices currently controlled by Republicans.

Republicans began the session by curbing Beshear’s powers during the pandemic—laws the governor is challenging in court. This effort continued throughout the session, with new measures chipping away at the governor’s authority outside the state of emergency.

Lawmakers voted to give Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron power to enforce abortion regulations, oversight normally reserved for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

They gave Republican state Treasurer Allison Ball authority to cancel state contracts, instead of the finance secretary.

And they forbade Beshear from spending federal coronavirus relief funds without the legislature’s authority, creating a mechanism to fine the administration more than $900,000 if he disobeys.

There are many other measures.

During a debate over whether to override Beshear’s veto of House Bill 518—a bill shifting State Fair Board appointments from the governor to Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles—Louisville Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian called it “yet another power grab.”

“Maybe we should just abolish the executive office? I don’t know why we don’t," Marzian said. "We probably should’ve done it 10 years ago."

The collision course was set after Kentucky voters elected Beshear in 2019 and doubled down on a supermajority Republican legislature in last year’s elections, creating political tension between two branches of government.

Republicans viewed the most recent election as a mandate to check Beshear amid the coronavirus pandemic, with conservatives railing against the governor’s use of executive power during the state of emergency.

But some argued the power shift has been a long time coming. Louisville Republican Rep. Kevin Bratcher said the legislature has moved on from the days when Kentucky governors controlled the legislature.

“Many people in this body may not realize that the legislature’s independence has come a long way from the days when the governor would pick the House leaders,” Bratcher said. “Those days are over, and the people’s voice isn’t stifled from the first floor.”

Lawmakers also tweaked the governor's power to fill vacancies in Kentucky's U.S. Senate seats, an effort backed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that would ensure he is replaced by a Republican if he leaves office before the end of his term.

Beshear has threatened to challenge some of the measures in court, though he hasn’t filed any lawsuits besides the ongoing one dealing with his emergency powers.

On Wednesday, Beshear said he was still reviewing the legislature’s actions.

“We are going to be going through the legislation. It’s going to be next week before I take actions on it,” Beshear said.

The governor vetoed all or part of 35 bills over the course of the legislative session, but the legislature overrode all of his actions except for two line-item vetoes in the budget.

He still has the opportunity to veto bills passed in the final two days of the session, and lawmakers won’t have an opportunity to override him.

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