Senator Robin L. Webb
Legislators returned to Frankfort on Tuesday, January 5, kicking off the 2021 Regular Session. However, it's eerily absent from the usual hustle and bustle of advocates, organizations, and visitors who typically converge on the Capitol and Capitol Annex to have their voices heard.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an entirely new way of legislating such as we have never seen. Committee meetings are held in-person and virtually, visitors to the annex are limited, and members must wear masks at all times, unless speaking.
In the first week, newly elected and reelected Senators were sworn into office, dozens of bills filed, and members received their committee assignments. They’re now attending meetings.
In the latter portion of the week, Governor Andy Beshear put forth his recommendations for the budget. The funding available is in much better shape than one would expect amid a pandemic. The spending document devised by the executive branch includes a 3-prong approach: providing relief, prioritizing our people, and investing in our future.
When reviewing the executive budget, one thing is evident: His efforts to protect consumers and save lives are paying off, quite literally. State revenue has seen a 16% increase and the second-highest receipt returns in Kentucky history. The Governor’s proposal is a great blueprint to help Kentuckians navigate what one hopes will be the final months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It makes critical investments as we move toward a post-covid economy – including providing much-needed help for struggling businesses and those who are unemployed.
The proposed spending plan is well thought out and puts Kentucky in a great position moving forward. However, it is worth noting, the House of Representatives composes the first draft of the budget.
The Majority laid out its priority bills for this session. As expected, many of them deal with narrowing the power of the executive branch. These bills flew through committee in the first week, some of which passed in the Senate.
Legislation passed in the Senate which will now go to the House for further consideration:
Senate Bill 1 (SB 1) would limit the effective dates for orders and regulations issued under executive emergency powers to 30 days unless the General Assembly grants an extension. It also prohibits the governor from issuing new orders during an emergency unless approved by the General Assembly.
I do not agree with everything in this bill, nor do I necessarily think we should hamstring the governor, or future governors, during an emergency. However, I am not opposed to some tweaking to ensure our branch of government has adequate oversight.
Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) requires government agencies to submit evidence to the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee before declaring an emergency. The proposal also would expand the legislative review to committees beyond the Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee, and limit some regulations to 30 days if they directly impact educational institutions, private businesses, nonprofits, political and social gatherings, and places of worship. SB 2 is another bureaucratic approach to removing power from the executive branch.
Senate Bill 3 (SB 3) would move the Kentucky Office of Agricultural Policy - composed of the Agricultural Development Board and Kentucky Agricultural Finance Corporation - and its affairs from the Office of the Governor to the Department of Agriculture.
Making this change has been a topic of conversation for some time. I am hesitant to dismantle and reorganize something that has worked so well since being implemented. These groups should remain under the purview of the executive branch. It has far more cabinets and resources to dovetail with the agriculture groups' projects or recommendations. I think these concerns could be addressed with small changes and not a complete overhaul of the Office of Agricultural Policy.
We are at a critical juncture regarding the pandemic. Cases continue to reach all-time highs, and the prospect of rolling back emergency orders, which include limits on gatherings, face masks, and capacity caps on businesses, could have deadly consequences. I fear that rescinding these powers from the executive and shifting them to the legislature could have unintended, costly repercussions. Instead of approving political power grabs, we should focus on providing relief and helping Kentuckians and Kentucky businesses recover from a brutal pandemic.