FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Reconvening after a weeklong break, Kentucky lawmakers worked on a coronavirus-relief measure Thursday to help cushion workers and employers from economic damage caused by the pandemic.
The relief bill comes amid a dramatically shrinking economy as businesses statewide close or scale back operations and tens of thousands more Kentucky residents file for unemployment benefits.
“We are dealing with things that we have to get done right now, and those are going to take priority," House Speaker David Osborne told reporters.
Finishing work on a new state budget and the virus-relief measure top the priority list, but lawmakers took up other bills Thursday. Those measures included expanding the attorney general's authority to regulate abortion and allowing Kentucky consumers to have spirits, wine or beer shipped directly to them. Lawmakers are hoping to vote on the budget next week.
The virus-relief bill has several layers to it but much of its focus is shoring up unemployment insurance relief, Osborne said.
In the week since lawmakers met, the state's number of coronavirus cases has escalated and more businesses temporarily closed to try to curb the virus's spread.
Lawmakers prepared for a flurry of activity Thursday with only a handful of days left in this year's abbreviated session because of the global pandemic. Several committees met and both the House and Senate had full slates of bills that could be taken up.
Under a tentative schedule, lawmakers would meet again April 1 with the goal of passing a new state budget. House and Senate budget negotiators this week started working on a final version of the two-year spending plan. Lawmakers would return to the state Capitol in mid-April to take up any vetoes by Gov. Andy Beshear. The legislative session has to conclude by April 15.
Meanwhile, the bill to empower the state attorney general to regulate abortion sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee and headed to the full Senate. It already passed the House.
Abortion bills usually generate lengthy committee discussions but not this time as people wanting to weigh in on legislation adjusted to efforts to try to curb the virus's spread.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky submitted written testimony to Judiciary Committee members expressing the group's opposition to the measure.
The ACLU, in its written testimony, denounced the bill as a “blatant power grab."
“There is simply no indication why it should be within the powers of the attorney general to oversee medical facilities or medical providers," the ACLU said.
The measure would expand the power of the state's anti-abortion attorney general, Republican Daniel Cameron, to regulate abortion facilities, including bringing civil penalties for violations.
Under current law, the attorney general needs authorization from the Cabinet for Health and Family Services before taking such action against abortion clinics, the bill's supporters say. The proposal would give the attorney general independent authority on such matters.
Meanwhile, the bill allowing Kentucky consumers to have spirits, wine or beer shipped directly to their homes was advanced by another Senate committee Thursday.
Lawmakers continued making special accommodations due to the virus. Legislative staff read testimony from some people who did not attend the committee hearing on the alcohol-shipment bill.
The alcohol-shipment measure would apply to producers. It would also allow Kentucky bourbon distillers to ship their products directly to consumers outside Kentucky, if their states allow such shipments. The same would apply to the state's beer and wine producers.
In promoting the bill, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said bourbon tourism is “flat on its back" due to the virus outbreak. The direct shipments would create a “new revenue stream" for alcohol producers and generate additional tax collections at a time when overall state revenues are expected to plummet as the virus damages the economy, he said.
The bill's supporters include the Kentucky Distillers' Association, which represents many of the state's bourbon producers. Under the measure, consumers receiving direct alcohol shipments would pay the same taxes and fees that retailers face in their state. It also would put monthly limits on amounts of direct shipments — 10 cases of wine, 10 cases of beer and 10 liters of distilled spirits.
The bill already passed the House and heads to the full Senate next.
Another Senate committee advanced a House-passed bill that would require Kentucky law enforcement agencies to develop vehicle pursuit polices. It also would set vehicle emergency training requirements for officers.
The bill stems from a Kentucky teenager's death when the car she was in was struck by a suspect being pursued by police in Anderson County.
Republican Rep. James Tipton, the bill's lead sponsor, says it's not a criticism of law enforcement, but is meant to help protect the public and officers.