Lawmakers complete work on bills to limit governor's power

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In a stinging rebuke of the Democratic governor's response to COVID-19, Republican lawmakers on Saturday gave final passage to bills limiting his emergency powers to impose restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus.

After months of fuming from the sidelines as Beshear restricted some business activities, GOP lawmakers completed fast-track work on measures reining in his emergency authority. The bills taken up in a rare weekend session now head to Beshear, but the GOP has the numbers to override any vetoes.

The looming changes in Kentucky's response to the pandemic come amid a record-breaking wave of virus cases in the post-holiday period. Kentucky reached another grim milestone Saturday, surpassing 300,000 cases since the start of the pandemic that has killed more than 2,800 people in the state.

“This is not the time to hamper our ability to fight a deadly virus,” Beshear said in a social media message Saturday.

Republicans said the measures will counter Beshear's overreach in combating the pandemic. Sen. Ralph Alvarado, the running mate of the GOP governor ousted by Beshear in the 2019 election, faulted Beshear with issuing orders he said were arbitrary and uneven in application — resulting in “confusion and anger, economic destruction, instability and division.”

Democrats were unable to stop the bills' momentum in the opening week of the legislative session. Yet they credited Beshear with sparing Kentucky from overwhelming virus-related hospitalizations and deaths hitting other states.

“There have been mistakes made," Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey said. "Instead of showing grace for those mistakes, though, today we’re pointing fingers.”

Instead of restricting the governor's powers, lawmakers should focus on supporting vaccine distribution, providing financial support for small businesses and promoting more affordable housing and health care, McGarvey said.

Republicans said one measure would instill greater certainty to keep businesses and schools open as the battle against the pandemic continues. Democrats said it would sow more confusion.

Businesses and schools would have to comply either with COVID-19 guidelines from the governor or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They could follow whichever standard is least restrictive.

It reflected a last-minute change by Republicans. The bill originally included compliance only with the CDC's guidance. Beshear weighed in Friday to say his standards are sometimes less restrictive, and that compliance only with CDC guidelines could result in some shutdowns.

Another priority bill winning final passage Saturday 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.

House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade said the debate shouldn't be framed as having to choose between protecting lives or opening the economy.

“I truly believe that most people in this state fall right there in the middle of both of those — that we can do both," he said. "We can protect the economy of this state while doing it in a safe manner to protect the health of the people that we represent.”

Republican lawmakers also gave final passage Saturday to a measure stripping the governor's ability to temporarily reorganize executive branch cabinets, boards, agencies and commissions when the legislature is not in session. It would stop a long-running practice by governors.

McGarvey summed up the bills as another example of Republican lawmakers stripping powers from a constitutional office when it's held by a Democrat.

The governor has noted that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the coronavirus, resulting in much higher death tolls. Beshear's restrictions led to a series of court battles last year. Kentucky’s Supreme Court upheld the governor’s authority to issue coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the spread of COVID-19.