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Budget Bill Lets Kentucky Legislature Decide How To Use COVID Relief Funds

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Republican lawmakers released a state budget bill over the weekend that would make sure the legislature, and not Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, has final authority in deciding how federal coronavirus relief money gets spent.

Kentucky will receive about $2.4 billion from the recently-passed relief package. That money can be used for a wide range of needs like testing and vaccination programs, relief for businesses and individuals, infrastructure investment and “premium pay” for essential workers — an additional $13 per hour.

But under the Kentucky budget bill quietly filed over the weekend, Beshear wouldn’t be able to use that money unless the legislature authorized him to do so.

“The state portion of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 shall not be expended or appropriated without the express authority of the General Assembly,” the bill states.

Last year, Beshear used federal money from the CARES Act to fund coronavirus testing, vaccine distribution, eviction relief and other programs — actions lawmakers couldn’t sign off on because they were out of session.

The new budget bill allows Republican legislators to decide if and how to spend the money, after all of Kentucky’s Republican members of Congress voted against the federal package.

If lawmakers do nothing with the money before the end of this year’s legislative session on March 30, the move could force Beshear to call a special legislative session to decide how the money should be spent.

Crystal Staley, Beshear’s communications director, said the governor is having discussions with legislative leaders.

“The Governor has presented to House and Senate leadership a transformational plan that would provide relief to many Kentuckians and create tens of thousands of jobs over the next year by investing the Recovery Act funds. With our country in a recession, the Governor does not believe we should be timid, but instead use these dollars to build the better Kentucky we all deserve,” Staley wrote in a statement.

Besides the language blocking the governor from using coronavirus funds, the budget bill is largely a continuation of last year’s spending plan when coronavirus was beginning to spread across the country.

The bill does not include Beshear’s budget requests like state employee raises and relief during the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislature is expected to vote on the proposal before Wednesday, when Beshear’s 10-day window to veto or sign legislation begins.

Lawmakers return for the final two days of the session on March 29 and 30 to consider overriding any vetoes and pass more legislation.

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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