The full Kentucky legislature will return to work on Thursday even though the general public has been barred from the Capitol during the coronavirus pandemic, and despite warnings about group gatherings spreading the disease.
As of Wednesday evening, Kentucky has 198 confirmed coronavirus cases and five related deaths. The disease has spread rapidly since the state’s first case was announced on March 6.
The 138-member body did not meet over the last week, though a small group of lawmakers gathered to try and hammer out a final version of the two-year budget.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature initially said they would try to vote on a budget during Thursday’s proceedings, but that is extremely unlikely since budget writers are still negotiating a final spending plan.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has called on lawmakers to quickly pass a budget and coronavirus-related bills, and on Wednesday criticized them for taking up measures that might get people “worked up.”
“In the midst of a worldwide pandemic and statewide emergency in Kentucky, they need to pass a budget and go home,” Beshear said.
So far the legislature has ignored Beshear’s request while access to the Capitol is restricted to only lawmakers, essential staff and reporters.
Before adjourning last Thursday, lawmakers passed a voter ID bill and advanced measures restricting the governor’s pardon power, creating new rights for crime victims and allowing the legislature to call itself into special session.
When they return this Thursday, nine committees are scheduled to hear bills ranging from a measure expanding the attorney general’s power to enforce abortion regulations, to a bill allowing home delivery of alcohol.
The full Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill that would ban the governor for reorganizing the state Board of Education and one that would separate the city and county pension system from the main pension system for state employees.
Out Of Public View
Amye Bensenhaver, a retired assistant attorney general and open records legal expert, criticized lawmakers for continuing to meet while the public is restricted from the Capitol.
“The tone that’s being set at the top, by the people who enact these laws, that’s really a problem,” Bensenhaver said. “They should do their utmost to comply with the law, and instead they just thumb their noses at the law. So they’re not exactly setting a good example for the rest of the state.”
Bensenhaver criticized lawmakers for not publicly posting this week’s meetings of the Budget Conference Committee — the panel where members of the House and Senate try to finalize the state budget.
Legislators didn’t provide public notice of the two official conference committee meetings on Monday and Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Senate Republican caucus said that conference committees — unlike standing committees — aren’t required to notify the public of their meetings, citing part of Kentucky’s open meetings law that allows such committees to not be “open to the public at all times.”
During the conference committee, which was streamed on KET, lawmakers compared differences between the House and Senate versions of the two-year budget and arrived at some initial tentative agreements — for example, they will not pursue the Senate’s proposal to withhold an extra $1.1 billion in funding from the teacher pension system if “structural changes” aren’t made to the system.
But finalizing the budget will be difficult as lawmakers have little idea of how much money the state will make over the next two years now that the coronavirus pandemic has shut down much of the economy.
Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said lawmakers have been working with Beshear’s administration to come up with a new estimate.
“We know we’re going to have to change our budget based on the forecasts that we are now receiving, which are in and of themselves very much speculative,” Stivers said.
The budget conference committee will continue to meet over the next week. After Thursday, the next scheduled meeting of the full legislature is Wednesday, April 1. Then the legislature is scheduled to adjourn until April 14 and 15 to consider overriding any vetoes issued by Gov. Beshear.