Republican lawmakers flex muscle in setting COVID policies

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Asserting their role in setting COVID-19 policies, Republican lawmakers advanced bills Thursday to put limits on the Democratic governor's ability to wield his emergency powers to impose restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The Kentucky House voted overwhelmingly to block Gov. Andy Beshear from temporarily closing schools and businesses that comply with federal COVID-19 guidelines. The bill heads to the Senate.

Later in the day, the Senate passed a bill to limit the governor’s executive orders in times of emergency to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. That bill heads to the House. The scope of the bill was narrowed to apply to orders that place restrictions on in-person meetings of schools, businesses and religious gatherings or impose mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.

The votes occurred as Kentucky reported its two highest daily totals of coronavirus cases on Wednesday and Thursday since the pandemic began, with a combined 10,653 cases.

The legislative action continued a fast-paced opening week as Republicans take aim at months of virus-related actions by Beshear that they have criticized as unilateral and inconsistent. It reflects long-running complaints from GOP lawmakers that the governor didn't consult with them. The legislators said they're the ones who have heard from constituents frantic that the restrictions threatened their livelihoods.

“When you reissue, over and over, state of emergencies you can reach into every aspect of a citizen’s life with mandates and orders with no stopping point in place," said Republican Sen. Matt Castlen. “When all authority is left to one person, it can be reckless — unintended consequences can happen.”

Beshear has criticized efforts to rein in his ability to respond to the pandemic, saying steps he has taken have saved lives. But Republicans have the votes to override his vetoes in both chambers.

The top-priority bill that passed the House seeks to guarantee that Kentucky businesses and schools stay open amid the pandemic if they meet federal virus-related guidelines.

“I’m voting ‘yes’ today ... because we, the policymaking branch of government, should be involved in these decisions that affect every Kentuckian,” House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy said.

The bill and similar others reflect mounting GOP frustration with Beshear’s use of his executive authority amid the health crisis. His restrictions on businesses, schools and individuals to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus have increasingly become politicized.

The bills debated Thursday drew opposition from Democrats. Rep. Angie Hatton said lawmakers should let the governor “do his job” in defeating the virus, which she said is needed to fully reopen the economy.

Democratic Rep. Patti Minter said the House-passed bill would cede authority to CDC guidelines if the measure becomes law. She warned that some business owners could “get an ugly surprise” because those federal guidelines can be stricter than standards in Beshear's orders.

Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey said the governor is the elected official best suited to deal with the pandemic since Kentucky has a part-time legislature.

He said the measures are the latest effort by GOP lawmakers to rein in the authority of Democratic leaders when they have held state constitutional offices.

“The pain of this pandemic is not partisan," he said. "My fear is this bill is.”