Lawmakers Ban Mask Mandates, Pandemic Special Session Ends

Sep 10, 2021

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

The Republican-led legislature wrapped up the special session called by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday night.

Shortly before midnight, lawmakers overrode two line-item vetoes Beshear issued of SB 1, which nullifies the school statewide mask mandate, and SB 2, which blocks the governor from creating other statewide mask requirements.

Beshear also signed two measures–SB 3 setting aside $69.2 million in federal coronavirus relief money to fight the pandemic and SB 5, which takes $410 million out of the rainy day fund to incentivize major companies to invest in the state.

Beshear called the special session after the legislature passed several laws limiting the governor’s emergency powers earlier this year. The state Supreme Court ordered those laws into effect after they were initially blocked.

In all, five bills passed out of the legislature during the special session. Republican legislators said they wanted to shift emergency power during the pandemic away from the governor and toward local governments. Under the new policies, local school boards and governments will still be able to institute mask mandates.

Rep. Steve Rudy, a Republican from Paducah, said the legislature tried to respond to the pandemic and criticized the governor for not working enough with lawmakers.

“We’re not a very nimble body, we’re trying the best we can be to be a nimble body under the circumstances,” Rudy said. “I’m sure we will miss a few things. But we must be responsive to the people, which we have tried to be.”

Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, a Democrat from Louisville, said the Republican-led legislature was shirking its responsibility and relitigating fights with the governor.

“This is the responsibility that some of you all asked for. You all fought for this, you all asked the Supreme Court for this responsibility, and now we’re just going to sit up here for a couple days and give it to someone else?” Cantrell said.

The governor is the only one with the power to call the legislature into a special session and set its agenda. In his proclamation calling the session, Beshear listed 10 items in his agenda, including several coronavirus-related issues and a request for lawmakers to set aside money for a mysterious economic development effort.

To expedite the legislative process, both the House and Senate considered identical versions of legislation—enabling them to pass bills in three days instead of the usual five.

Here’s what passed:

House Joint Resolution 1: This measure extends many of Beshear’s coronavirus-related orders, including the March 2020 emergency declaration related to the virus. It passed out of the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1: This bill nullifies the statewide school mask mandate issued by the Kentucky Board of Education last month. It also provides a little more flexibility to schools dealing with coronavirus outbreaks during the pandemic, creating 20 days where districts can designate individuals, classes, grades or entire schools can go into remote learning. There is some controversy as to whether undoing the mask mandate falls within the scope of Beshear’s agenda for the session.

Senate Bill 2: This bill directs the state to create more monoclonal antibody treatment centers, testing and vaccine capacity, and requires nursing homes and long-term care facilities to allow at least one family member or designated caregiver to visit residents. It also bans the state from instituting a statewide mask mandate until 2023.

Senate Bill 3: This bill sets aside $69.2 million for Beshear’s administration to respond to the pandemic. Though the bill gives the state Health Cabinet leeway in how it uses the money, it prioritizes using the funds to set up monoclonal treatment centers, “test and stay” programs at schools that allow students and staff to avoid quarantine if they test negative for the virus.

Senate Bill 5: This bill takes $410 million out of the state’s rainy day fund to attract companies that plan to invest at least $2 billion in the state using incentives. Supporters of the bill won’t confirm what companies are interested in taking advantage of the incentive, or where they plan to build.

The measure specifically mentions a vacant site in Hardin County that the state acquired in 2002 in a failed attempt to attract a Hyundai car plant to Kentucky. Hyundai ended up building a factory in Alabama.

Here’s what didn’t pass:

Senate Joint Resolution 3: This measure would say that people who test positive for COVID antibodies will count as being fully vaccinated, according to the state. Specifically, the resolution states that “the Commonwealth of Kentucky will recognize a positive COVID-19 antibody test as the equivalent to having been vaccinated against COVID-19.” Proposed by GOP Sen. Ralph Alvarado of Winchester, a physician, the bill contradicts the CDC’s conclusion that people who naturally recover from COVID aren’t as protected as people who get vaccinated. The bill passed out of the Senate but wasn’t taken up in the House.

House Bill 4: This measure sought to eliminate pay for legislators during the 10-day period the governor considers signing or vetoing bills. Legislative leaders said it would have violated part of the state Constitution that requires legislators to be paid.