Kentucky lawmakers pass coronavirus-relief measure

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Reconvening after a weeklong break, Kentucky lawmakers passed a measure Thursday offering relief to workers and employers suffering economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.

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The relief bill comes amid a dramatically shrinking economy as businesses statewide close or scale back operations and tens of thousands more Kentucky residents file for unemployment benefits.

“This bill will provide immense help in guiding the state's response to COVID-19 and give the governor and executive branch the authority and support they need to move forward," House Speaker David Osborne said.

While work on a new state budget and the virus-relief measure are top priorities, lawmakers took up other bills Thursday. Those measures included expanding the attorney general's authority to regulate abortion and allowing Kentucky consumers to have spirits, wine or beer shipped directly to them. Lawmakers hope to vote on the budget next week.

The virus-relief bill has several layers to it but it includes relaxing access to unemployment insurance. House and Senate negotiators crafted a final version Thursday evening that quickly cleared both chambers and now goes to Gov. Andy Beshear.

It waives the seven-day waiting period for Kentucky residents to access unemployment benefits. It also extends benefits to the self-employed and others normally ineligible for assistance. And it allows workers cut back to part-time status to draw a partial benefit.

The bill also allows state licensing, renewal and application fees and administrative requirements to be waived for people or businesses. It also prevents a business owner's unemployment insurance rate from being impacted because they had to lay off employees due to the virus.

“I believe the changes we have made ... will make the unemployment insurance program even more valuable as a safety net and help set the stage for our recovery," said Republican Rep. Bart Rowland.

Due to the global pandemic, Thursday was the first day the legislature had met in a week. In that time, the state's number of coronavirus cases escalated and more businesses temporarily closed to try to curb the virus's spread. Lawmakers have only a handful of days left in this year's abbreviated session because of the virus.

Under the shortened timeline, lawmakers are scheduled to meet again April 1 with the goal of passing a new state budget. House and Senate budget negotiators are working on a final version of the two-year spending plan. Lawmakers would return to the Capitol in mid-April to take up any vetoes by Beshear. The legislative session has to conclude by April 15.

Meanwhile, the bill allowing Kentucky consumers to have spirits, wine or beer shipped directly to their homes won final passage Thursday in the Senate, a few hours after clearing a Senate committee. The bill now goes to Beshear.

The alcohol-direct shipment measure would apply to producers. It would allow Kentucky bourbon distillers to ship their products directly to consumers outside Kentucky, if their states allow such shipments. The same would apply to the state's beer and wine producers.

In promoting the bill, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said bourbon tourism is “flat on its back" due to the virus outbreak. The direct shipments would create a “new revenue stream" for alcohol producers and generate additional tax collections at a time when overall state revenues are expected to plummet as the virus damages the economy, he said.

The bill's supporters include the Kentucky Distillers' Association, which represents many of the state's bourbon producers. Under the measure, consumers receiving direct alcohol shipments would pay the same taxes and fees that retailers face in their state. It also would put monthly limits on amounts of direct shipments — 10 cases of wine, 10 cases of beer and 10 liters of distilled spirits.

Meanwhile, the bill to empower the state attorney general to regulate abortion sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and headed to the full Senate. It already passed the House.

Abortion bills usually generate lengthy committee discussions but not this time as people wanting to weigh in on legislation adjusted to efforts to try to curb the virus's spread.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky submitted written testimony to Judiciary Committee members expressing the group's opposition to the measure.

The ACLU, in its written testimony, denounced the bill as a “blatant power grab."

“There is simply no indication why it should be within the powers of the attorney general to oversee medical facilities or medical providers," the ACLU said.

The measure would expand the power of the state's anti-abortion attorney general, Republican Daniel Cameron, to regulate abortion facilities, including bringing civil penalties for violations.

Under current law, the attorney general needs authorization from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services before taking such action against abortion clinics, the bill's supporters say. The proposal would give the attorney general independent authority on such matters.

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