Gov. Andy Beshear defended how he has battled the coronavirus pandemic in Thursday night's State of the Commonwealth speech and urged the Republican-run Kentucky legislature to support his plan to help the commonwealth finish and recover from that fight.
"Over the past 10 months, we have been at war," he said. "This evil virus has taken more than 2,700 of our fellow Kentuckians. That toll is heartbreaking; it is greater than the number of Kentuckians lost in Vietnam, Korea, even World War I. And these aren't numbers ... We have lost doctors, teachers, bus drivers, a police chief, pastors and a 15-year-old student."
"Now we are called to look ahead, not with fear, but with courage. To do so, we must move past any remaining denial or rationalizations," he said in his address, which was done through a video because of the pandemic.
"Failure to take this virus seriously at this late date disrespects the memory of those we have lost, disrespects the pain of those who are grieving and disrespects the deep sacrifices so many have made in this war. It also threatens to create much more pain, more death and more disruption, all of which can be avoided."
The state legislature kicked off its annual lawmaking session this week, and leading GOP lawmakers quickly signaled their intention to pass legislation that limits the emergency powers Beshear has used to institute a wide range of restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
For months, key Republican lawmakers have criticized the governor for, among other things, how the capacity limits and temporary closures he required for restaurants and many other businesses have affected the state's economy and workforce.
In Thursday's speech, Beshear said his approach has been based on public health experts' advice and has been effective, with the help of countless Kentuckians who complied with his administration's orders and recommendations.
"My actions have been targeted to have the greatest impact, and they have been limited in both time and scope to avoid undue and unnecessary damage," he said. "You can look at the devastating experiences in states that failed to take the same aggressive actions we did to stop the coronavirus. Adjusted for population, we have suffered less than half the number of deaths as the people of Tennessee and less than one-fourth the number of deaths as the citizens of North and South Dakota."
Beshear stressed that he and state lawmakers should "put aside squabbling and petty partisanship."
"So, let me be clear: Every moment in this short session we spend fighting is a loss for our Kentucky families," he said. "Such fighting will leave us empty-handed and further behind those states that recognize this moment and this opportunity. Our goal should be to act swiftly and with wisdom on behalf of the people of the commonwealth.
With a new 3-to-1 supermajority over Democrats in each chamber of the Kentucky General Assembly, Republicans are wasting no time sprinting eight of their priority bills through the legislature in the first days of the 2021 session.
These bills — several of which target abortion and scale back Gov. Andy Beshear's emergency powers to enact COVID-19 rules — could pass through both chambers and be sent to the governor's desk as early as Saturday, assuming they face no hiccups and legislative leaders add that day to the session's calendar.
The House easily passed all five of its priority bills by a mostly party-line vote in just over two hours Thursday afternoon, while the Senate passed four priority bills later that evening.
The first bill to pass Thursday was House Bill 1, sponsored by Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, one of the bills reacting to criticism of Beshear's many executive orders restricting businesses and public gatherings to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Rowland's bill seeks to allow a businesses, schools, nonprofits, churches and local governments to remain open as long as long as their policies meet or exceed U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, in order to protect them in case the governor orders a "third shutdown."
Background:Kentucky General Assembly kicks off 2021 session
Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg, countered that doing away with specific COVID-19 regulations of the administration for ambiguous and conflicting CDC guidelines could backfire and worsen the pandemic, as "the way to reopen our economy is to defeat COVID-19."
Rep. Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, said businesses have suffered enough through Beshear's orders, saying he has refused to share data to justify his restrictions.
House Bill 2, giving Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron new power to regulate Kentucky abortion clinics, also passed easily, just as it did in last year's session before being vetoed by Beshear.
House Bill 3 — seeking to move legal cases involving the constitution and state government out of Franklin Circuit Court by creating new randomly selected panels of three judges from across the state — passed over the objections of Democrats that it violated the Kentucky Constitution and would be quickly blocked and defeated in the court system.
Also passing easily was House Bill 4, a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the General Assembly to extend the end of legislation session beyond the set days in the spring.
Osborne said the need for HB 4 was shown by Beshear's refusal to consult with the legislature and call it back into session so it could address what Republicans felt were his overreaching and burdensome COVID-19 policies, as they had to wait until the new session in January.
If passed, voters would not be able to vote on the amendment until November 2022.
The chamber also overwhelmingly passed House Bill 5, which would take away a governor's ability to temporarily reorganize state boards and replace its members, as former Gov. Matt Bevin did with the University of Louisville board of trustees and Beshear did with the Kentucky Board of Education just after taking office.
Later Thursday evening, Senate Bill 1, which would limit Beshear's executive orders under a state of emergency to 30 days unless the legislature extended that order, passed through the other chamber after a heated debate.
Republican members continued slamming Beshear's COVID-19 orders as arbitrary and not based on data, while Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said the governor must be able to act decisively during an emergency.
The Senate also passed Senate Bill 9, which would require doctors to "preserve the life and health of a born-alive infant" during a "failed abortion," Senate Bill 2, which would additional requirements for a governor to enact administrative regulations, and Senate Bill 3, which moves the Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund from the governor’s office to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.