Legislative Update - Week of March 16, 2020
Time for my normal update even though everything is far from ”normal.”
I hope everyone is keeping well and staying home if your work allows. I pray you are buying what your need and not hoarding but that you are able to buy what you need and can find it when you need it.
Our healthcare workers and first responders deserve considerable credit for what they have done to keep us well, while our teachers and school staffs are to be commended for making sure our children are still able to learn and have access to nutritional food while they are at home.
Those running our grocery stores and restaurants have overcome their own challenges to continue serving us, and our small businesses and civic and charitable organizations have found ways to help many of us navigate situations our country hasn’t seen since the days of World War II and the Great Depression.
I want to thank everyone who has gone above and beyond for our community – and I appreciate the willingness of so many to stay home and, when out, to practice social distancing and good hand washing to limit the spread of this illness.
At the Capitol this past week, it also was the best of times and the worst of times. On the positive side, Governor Andy Beshear and his administration have kept us informed and taken the tough but necessary steps needed to “flatten the curve” so that our healthcare system can weather the growing number of COVID-19 cases, which going into the weekend numbered just under 50.
The state has also eased rules to accommodate those who have lost their jobs as a result of the various closures and now qualify for such programs as Medicaid and unemployment insurance. I understand some financial relief for those classified as “independent contractors” may also be forthcoming.
On Thursday, the House moved two significant bills forward that will build on this relief. Senate Bill 177 would give our schools the flexibility they need to finish the school year as they and their students cope with the prolonged absence, and Senate Bill 150 would do something similar in other areas so Governor Beshear and health officials have more authority to do what is necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Those were the high points of our legislative work last week, but there were regrettably some low points, too.
Many of my legislative colleagues and I questioned whether we should even be at the Capitol at all. In Georgia, one legislator who tested positive for COVID-19 led to a call that every legislator there self-isolate. More than a dozen other state legislatures left their capitals altogether. Governor Beshear promised to call the General Assembly back into special session in the weeks ahead to enact emergency measures and the state’s budget, but the Republican legislative leaders refused.
As a result, and with the Capitol complex closed to the general public, the House and Senate considered numerous bills that had no relevance to the crisis at hand. Some of the bills were not merely nonessential but would have a negative impact on hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians.
One of the more significant is Senate Bill 2, which will add another hurdle by requiring a photo ID to vote. Current law already requires voters to show some form of ID, but this bill won’t even allow a valid out-of-state drivers license to be used.
Even though free IDs are part of this bill – a cost that alone could reach into the millions of dollars – for which neither the House nor Senate budgets provide funding – this is a waste of money when there has not been a single example in at least 20 years of in-person voter fraud. If we’re going to consider voting legislation during a crisis, it should be to extend hours at the polls and allow early, excuse-free voting.
This week, legislative leaders will work on a compromise state budget that the House and Senate are scheduled to vote on this Thursday. I’m hoping that some aspects of the Senate budget, which was approved this past week, do not survive.
One proposal would potentially withhold more than $1 billion from the teachers’ retirement fund if unspecified changes are not made in the next two years to limit benefits for new teachers. At the same time, it funds over $400,000 to transport on public busses to private schools.
Inexplicably, the Senate budget also scales back tens of millions of dollars our public health departments desperately need to make their retirement contributions more manageable. At a time when the critical role teachers and public health departments play is more evident than ever, I cannot understand how any legislator, much less the majority of the Senate, could support these plans.
I will of course update you further on what develops, but for now, here are some important websites and phone numbers you may need. To access the state’s public-assistance programs, please visit https://benefind.ky.gov or call 1-855-306-8959. For Medicaid, the customer-service line is 855-459-6328, and the website is https://healthbenefitexchange.ky.gov.
For unemployment insurance, the website is http://www.kewes.ky.gov/, while the main number for claimants is 502-564-2900. Governor Beshear has also announced more regional phone numbers.
Be aware that, due to sudden spike in unemployment payments, applications are being accepted this week on a staggered basis based on last name. Each day is focused on several letters through Friday, and if you miss your day, you can use Friday as well.
This information and more can be found on a new website the administration has created as a single source listing every state order and action. That website is https://governor.ky.gov/covid19.
Finally, please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or concerns about these or other legislative issues. My email is Maria.Sorolis@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line for all legislators is 1-800-372-7181.