Beshear pushes back against bills to limit his COVID actions

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Andy Beshear pushed back Friday against bills to limit his emergency authority to combat COVID-19, saying one measure tying state policy to federal guidelines could backfire by resulting in shutdowns.

The Democratic governor declared “what’s really at issue is control" as Republican lawmakers advanced the bills in the opening week of the 2021 session. It reflects months of frustration among those lawmakers as Beshear put restrictions on businesses and individuals to combat the pandemic that has killed more than 2,800 in Kentucky.

The governor maintains his actions have saved lives. Republicans counter that Beshear's orders were inconsistent and done unilaterally without their input. With GOP lawmakers holding veto-proof majorities to pass the bills into law, Beshear used his bully pulpit Friday to denounce the measures.

The debate comes amid another record-breaking pace of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky in the post-holiday period. More than 15,000 virus cases were reported statewide in the past three days, the governor said.

Beshear on Friday focused on a House priority bill that would block him from temporarily closing schools and businesses as long as they comply with COVID-19 guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The measure, put on a fast track, was passed by the House on Thursday and cleared a Senate committee on Friday.

Beshear warned it would cede state control over setting COVID-19 standards.

“At a time where we are surging, we shouldn’t give away our ability to respond to the federal government," he said at a news conference. "We shouldn’t reduce our flexibility to where we would have less ability to respond than just about any other state in the country.”

CDC virus guidelines at times have been vague, conflicting or so strict that its application "could be debilitating for things that we can do safely,” he said. Beshear pointed to guidance still suggesting the shuttering of some businesses in times of prolonged rising COVID-19 cases.

“This is the problem when you ... put guidance that is never intended to be law into law," the governor said. "House Bill 1, based on what it references, may be requiring a shutdown of Kentucky which does not and should not need to happen.”

Republican Rep. Bart Rowland, the bill's lead sponsor, said it's meant to provide “reassurance" to businesses that have suffered during the pandemic.

Denouncing the governor's virus-related orders, Rowland said Kentuckians have been “subject to arbitrary and crippling restrictions, which have led to unimaginable losses for working Kentuckians, their children's education and livelihoods.”

Another bill moving quickly through the legislature would limit the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. It would apply to orders that place restrictions on in-person meetings of schools, businesses and religious gatherings or impose mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.

The governor has noted that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the virus.