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Kentucky Lawmakers Pass Last-Minute Bills On Final Day Of Session

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Lawmakers advanced a last-minute bill funding a year of full-day kindergarten, money to repay Kentucky’s unemployment insurance loan and more funds to boost broadband internet in the state on Tuesday.

The language was added to House Bill 382, an unrelated bill that dealt with the state’s regional development assistance fund. The new version was unveiled early on the last day of this year’s legislative session, which is required to end at midnight.

The $140 million for local school districts for kindergarten funding was initially part of the controversial school choice bill passed by the legislature, but it was removed shortly before Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period.

With significant opposition among Republicans and Democrats, the legislature narrowly overrode Beshear’s veto of the school choice bill on Monday.

One of the key swing votes was Rep. Regina Huff, the Republican chair of the House Education Committee.

In a Tweet on Tuesday, she said her vote in favor of the school choice bill was conditional on kindergarten funding.

Most Kentucky school districts already have full-day kindergarten and the money will allow them to offset expenses.

The bill includes $575 million in federal coronavirus relief money to help pay down Kentucky’s unemployment insurance loan, which the state took out after the start of the pandemic.

And it includes another $50 million to expand broadband internet in Kentucky — on top of the $250 million the legislature already set aside for rural broadband.

Sen. David Givens, a Republican from Greensburg, said the extra $50 million would be “specifically for economic development opportunities for commercial industrial customers.”

Republican Senate Budget Chair Chris McDaniel hinted that there might be more budget items before the deadline, noting that “the day is young.”

COVID Lawsuits

Lawmakers revived a bill providing legal protections to businesses worried about coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Senate Bill 5 was proposed by Senate President Robert Stivers earlier this year but didn’t pass ahead of Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto period. On Tuesday the bill was gutted and replaced with a new version.

Rep. Ed Massey, a Republican from Hebron, said the bill would protect businesses trying to comply with guidelines.

“What’s protected is things…like understaffing. Or because a misunderstanding of perhaps the eternally moving and changing restrictions regarding mask mandates,” Massey said.

“With the changing executive orders, someone could go about their best efforts to assure their business was safe and then someone could contract COVID or transmit COVID and they could potentially be sued for liability.”

The bill would protect a long list of “essential service providers” from coronavirus-related lawsuits, including financial institutions, shipping services, restaurants, health care providers, schools, manufacturers and government agencies.

It also protects other business owners from liability as long as they follow “any executive action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The bill doesn’t create a duty of care — a legal requirement that businesses comply with the guidelines to protect others. The bill also does not shield essential businesses from lawsuits alleging gross negligence, or wanton, willful, malicious, or intentional misconduct.

Rep. McKenzie Cantrell said the bill is unnecessary because it would be hard for a court to pinpoint a business as the source of a coronavirus infection.

“This virus is everywhere. It would be really, really hard at this point for someone who contracts the virus to say for sure where they got it,” Cantrell said.

Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat from Whitesburg, said the bill would violate the state and U.S. constitution by denying access to the courts.

“I do trust our judicial system. I trust our juries and I trust our judges to weed out frivolous claims and to protect those who need protecting,” Hatton said.

The measure passed out of the House on Tuesday and now heads to the Senate.
If Beshear vetoes the bill, lawmakers won’t have a chance to override his veto. This year’s legislative session ends at midnight.

Note: This story will be updated throughout the day.

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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