The legislative process may have continued much as it has since the General Assembly began meeting in January, but like virtually every other public aspect of our lives, it was anything but normal at the Capitol last week.
Governor Andy Beshear gave at least one and often two public briefings each day on the latest developments involving the coronavirus, and the number of schools and colleges closing temporarily or moving instruction online grew with each passing day until, on Thursday, the governor called for all elementary and secondary schools to shut down for at least two weeks. These districts will decide whether to continue instruction remotely or to extend classes further into the summer, while many have pledged to keep providing meals to students in need.
Annual sporting events like high school basketball’s Sweet 16 and college’s March Madness were cancelled, too, and Governor Beshear urged citizens to limit visits to such places as nursing homes and any large public event.
At the Capitol itself, legislative staff removed half of the chairs in committee rooms to keep people from sitting too closely together and took away all seating in the cafeteria. Legislators did not meet on Friday and Monday as a precaution, but House and Senate leaders indicated they still hope to complete the legislative session by April 15th, the date Kentucky’s constitution says it must end.
As the number of coronavirus cases grows worldwide, the number of confirmed cases here in the commonwealth stood at a little more than 20 by Monday morning.
Work on expanding testing is moving ahead, as are efforts to limit the growth in cases by the quarantining of those who have been infected or exposed. By now, most of us have also heard how important it is to wash our hands properly and regularly and not to touch our faces. Social distancing, or staying at least six feet apart from others in public, is also recommended. Simple steps like these can make a world of difference.
Governor Beshear and his administration have many of the tools they need to respond to this crisis, but the General Assembly is ready to act should more revenue or legislation be necessary. Some of those actions could include helping the school districts cope with their missed days or to improve laws governing price gouging, health insurance and unemployment payments.
Although this issue understandably garnered the most attention last week among legislators, there were a number of other significant bills to move forward that deserve mention.
The House, for example, voted unanimously on Monday for House Bill 2, which would update Kentucky’s human-trafficking laws and improve the public’s ability to respond to this crime by having airports, train stations and truck stops put up signs with the phone number for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
The chamber also voted for two public retirement-related bills. House Bill 484 gives more independence to the retirement system for local government employees so they have more control over their investments and the system’s governance, while House Bill 613 creates a new retirement option for those hired in 2021 and beyond who work for our regional universities and KCTCS and want to enroll in the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System. Employees at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville are not affected because they participate in separate retirement plans.
In other legislation, the House also voted for House Bill 368, which would allow those with a felony record to use the KEES money they earned with good grades in high school. The hope is that removing this barrier will encourage many benefiting from this to further their education.
In another criminal-justice matter, the House also voted for House Bill 424, which would modernize our theft and fraud offenses by raising the felony threshold to $1,000. This is one element in a broader move to reduce our overcrowding jails and prisons.
There are only about a dozen days left to complete our work, and these bills plus many others still have to clear the Senate and the governor’s desk before becoming law.
That work, on top of passing a two-year budget to run state government, means we have a lot to do in a relatively short amount of time, and the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus definitely adds a complicating factor.
Whatever ultimately happens, I hope you will continue contacting me with your views and concerns regarding legislative matters. You can always email me at Wilson.Stone@lrc.ky.gov, or you can leave me or any other legislator a message by calling 1-800-372-7181.