FRANKFORT – The Kentucky General Assembly flexed its powers to shape the state’s COVID-19 response during a three-day special session lawmakers gaveled to a close Thursday night.
The governor called the extraordinary session after the state Supreme Court ruled that a lower court incorrectly blocked laws limiting the executive branch’s emergency powers. Lawmakers used the opportunity to extend some emergency executive actions, eliminate others, try new strategies to mitigate COVID-19 and provide relief to institutions strained by the pandemic. Those include schools, hospitals, nursing homes and businesses.
Lawmakers stressed they would monitor the implementation of the legislation and the evolving pandemic during the remainder of the interim, the period between regular sessions where lawmakers study, propose and prefile bills. Legislators will have an additional opportunity to act when they return for the 2022 Regular Session in early January.
The actions taken during the special session break down into the following categories, including one non-pandemic related measure:
Education: Senate Bill 1 will prioritize in-person learning at public schools while shifting decisions about COVID-19 protocols to locally-elected school boards, including whether students should wear a mask.
The first provision will allow school districts to waive a requirement of 170 instructional days in favor of 1,062 instructional hours. That will let schools adjust starting and ending times to make up for lost days.
It will not add additional non-traditional instruction days, but instead create 20 so-called temporary remote instruction days through the end of the year for a specific class, grade, building or entire school stricken by COVID-19. This will prevent an entire district from shutting down when a COVID-19 outbreak happens among a particular group within the district.
The measure will also require local health departments to develop a so-called test-to-stay model for school districts. That’s where a student who may have been exposed to COVID-19 at school gets tested for the virus each morning before class instead of quarantining.
To address staffing shortages, SB 1 will make it easier for retired teachers to return to the classroom, in some cases as soon as 30 days after retiring. The retirees could make up to 10% of a district’s teaching staff under the provision.
A final provision will stabilize school funding. Many districts were looking at budget shortfalls because state funding is based, in part, on average daily attendance. And that measurement has plunged because of students out sick or quarantined.
SB 1 passed by a 28-8 vote in the Senate and 70-25 vote in the House.
Health care: Senate Bill 2 will declare the statewide facemask mandate void but encourage vaccinations, COVID-19 testing and greater access to monoclonal antibody treatments, such as Regeneron.
A second provision will require Kentucky’s public universities to develop and initiate public awareness campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. One focus will be on developing partnerships with athletes, coaches and health care providers to promote the vaccine’s benefits.
A third will assist health care providers, jails, prisons, homeless shelters and local health departments in acquiring COVID-19 tests. A fourth will make it easier to administer the vaccine at the offices of primary care physicians. A fifth will allow paramedics to work in hospitals to relieve a nursing shortage.
The bill will also establish safety protocols for so-called essential compassionate care visitors in long-term care facilities during pandemic-induced lockdowns. They could be a family member, legal guardian or close friend.
SB 2 passed by a 26-10 vote in the Senate and 69-24 vote in the House.
Expenses: Senate Bill 3 will redirect more than $69 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health & Family Services. The money was leftover from the repayment of a federal loan to Kentucky’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The loan was taken out to cover a surge of pandemic-related unemployment claims.
The money will be used to help health care providers, schools and others to implement provisions of SB 1 and SB 2. These include the purchase of COVID-19 tests, the establishment of regional monoclonal antibody treatment centers and test-to-stay programs in schools.
SB 3 passed by a 36-0 vote in the Senate and 84-8 vote in the House.
Extending emergency executive actions: House Joint Resolution 1 modified some of the governor’s executive orders and extends many of them through Jan. 15. The resolution also extended a state of emergency order for Nicholas County, which is recovering from flash flooding, for another 30 days.
The orders addressed in the resolution included protections from price gouging, expansion of nutrition assistance, allowing flexibility for retired first responders to return to work, allowing state and local governments to conduct business and meetings virtually and more.
HJR 1 also extended COVID-19 liability protection for businesses and allowed certain flexibilities regarding unemployment insurance.
HJR 1 was adopted on the first day of the special session by a 92-3 vote in the House and 32-4 vote in the Senate.
Economic development bill: Senate Bill 5 was the only legislation that passed during the special session that contained no pandemic-related provisions. It will appropriate $410 million of the $1.7 billion surplus in Kentucky’s trust fund to offer economic development incentives for projects valued at $2 billion or more.
Some incentives will be in the form of forgivable loans. Economic development officials testified that the incentives will be paid out over time to ensure any project meets the required job and wage targets. Those officials said there will also be a claw-back provision if the project doesn’t meet the targets.
Sponsors of the legislation said a non-disclosure agreement prevented them from releasing too many details, but that Kentucky is in the running for at least one mega project eyeing Hardin County. Supporters repeatedly compared SB 5 to state economic development incentives the General Assembly passed in the late ‘80s that brought Toyota’s first American assembly plant to Georgetown. It is now the world’s largest Toyota manufacturing facility where the Lexus ES350, Avalon, Camry and some hybrid counterparts are assembled.
SB 5 passed by a 30-3 vote in the Senate and 91-2 vote in the House.
With the governor’s signing of HJR 1, SB 3 and SB 5 and the General Assembly’s overriding of vetoes on SB 1 and SB 2, the measures went into effect immediately.