FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear announced Saturday that he's calling Kentucky's Republican-led legislature into a special session to shape pandemic policies as the state struggles with a record surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The return of lawmakers to the state Capitol starts Tuesday and marks a dramatic power shift in coronavirus-related policymaking in the Bluegrass State following a landmark court ruling. Since the pandemic hit Kentucky, the governor mostly acted unilaterally in setting statewide virus policies, but the state Supreme Court shifted those decisions to the legislature.
“Now, that burden will fall in large part on the General Assembly," Beshear said Saturday. "It will have to carry much of that weight to confront unpopular choices and to make decisions that balance many things, including the lives and the possible deaths of our citizens.”
Beshear had sole authority to call a special session and set the agenda. At a news conference Saturday, he outlined pandemic issues he wants lawmakers to consider, including policies on mask-wearing and school schedules amid growing school closures due to virus outbreaks. But GOP House and Senate supermajorities will decide what measures ultimately pass.
Beshear told reporters Saturday he's had good conversations with top GOP lawmakers and that draft legislation was exchanged.
Republican House Speaker David Osborne said the proposals offered by lawmakers were the “culmination of 18 months of research, discussion and input from groups and individuals directly engaged in responding to this pandemic.”
“While we are not yet in agreement regarding the specific language of the legislation we will consider, we are continuing discussions and have agreed it is in the best interests of our commonwealth to move forward with the call,” Osborne said in a statement.
Lawmakers will be asked to extend the pandemic-related state of emergency until mid-January, when the legislature would be back in regular session, Beshear said. They will be asked to review his virus-related executive orders and other actions by his administration, the governor said.
On the issue of masks, the governor said his call will “ask them to determine my ability to require masking in certain situations, depending on where the pandemic goes and how bad any area is.”
Beshear ordered statewide mask mandates to confront previous virus surges and said Saturday he sees that authority as “absolutely necessary” to tackle the delta variant. Acknowledging the issue will be contentious, he suggested a more targeted approach.
“If they won’t consider providing that authority in general, my hope is that they will consider a threshold to where they will provide me that authority," the governor said.
Beshear also asked lawmakers to provide more school scheduling flexibility as many districts have had to pause in-person learning because of virus outbreaks. Several ideas are being considered, he said, including allowing local school leaders to use a more tailored approach when shifting to remote learning, allowing them to apply it to a single school or even a classroom rather than the entire district. That idea was discussed at a recent legislative committee hearing.
Key GOP lawmakers have signaled their preference for policies favoring local decision-making over statewide mandates to combat COVID-19.
Lawmakers also will be asked to appropriate leftover federal pandemic aid to “further the fight” against the coronavirus, the governor said. The funding would support pandemic mitigation and prevention efforts, including testing and vaccine distribution.
More than 7,840 Kentuckians have died from COVID-19, include 69 deaths announced on Thursday and Friday. The delta variant has put record numbers of virus patients in Kentucky hospitals, including in intensive care units and on ventilators. The state reported Friday that nearly 90% of ICU beds statewide were occupied.
“The delta variant is spreading at a rate never seen before, impacting businesses, shuttering schools and worse causing severe illness and death,” Beshear said Saturday.
“We need as many tools as possible to fight this deadly surge in order to save lives, keep our children in school and keep our economy churning,” he added.
Various emergency measures issued by Beshear are set to expire as a result of the court decision issued two weeks ago. Lawmakers will decide whether to extend, alter or discontinue each emergency order, while putting their own stamp on the state's response to COVID-19.
Throughout the pandemic, Republican lawmakers watched from the sidelines as Beshear waged an aggressive response that included statewide mask mandates and strict limits on gatherings. Republicans criticized the governor for what they viewed as overly broad and stringent restrictions, most of which were lifted in June.
The state Supreme Court recently shifted those virus-related decisions to the legislature. The court cleared the way for new laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, which he used to impose virus restrictions. The justices said a lower court wrongly blocked the GOP-backed measures.