Lee’s Ford Marina is a long way from Frankfort, but on Thursday, it was a great place to find your local representative in state government.
Sen. Rick Girdler, who represents Pulaski County as part of Senate District 15, joined state representatives Ken Upchurch (52nd House District) and David Meade (80th District) at the Harbor Restaurant for a “Legislative Update” event by the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce. They were also joined by incoming representatives-elect Josh Branscum of District 83, taking over Jeff Hoover’s old seat, and Shane Baker, replacing the longstanding Pulaskian Tommy Turner in District 85.
For Branscum of Russell County and Baker of Pulaski, it was a rare opportunity to meet with the public. Both of them saw their campaigns leading up to this year’s Primary Election stifled because of COVID-19 restrictions, making public appearances a no-go (likewise, COVID-19 concerns resulted in a shortened legislative session for those already in Frankfort). Here, they were able to introduce themselves to a packed house and answer some questions from those in attendance.
“This is actually something that when we were campaigning, we didn’t get to do,” said Branscum. “Right about the time we were about to start door-to-door is when COVID hit, so we didn’t get the opportunity to get out, to meet a lot of people, and to really get to introduce yourself.”
However, the topic on everyone’s minds that evening was more about Gov. Andy Beshear and complaints of executive overreach from his office. There were over 100 people in the Harbor’s bar area — Chamber Executive Director Bobby Clue noted that the attendance was higher than at the organization’s last luncheon -- and most of them who took the microphone asked the legislators questions about how the Kentucky House and Senate could address or repeal Beshear’s numerous executive orders relating to the COVID-19 situation.
Even Girdler, Meade and Upchurch kicked off the event on the subject, catching the audience up with their takes on the hot topic in the room.
“I’ve heard from all of you,” noted Girdler. “... A ‘state of emergency’ (designation) was not put in to have somebody in charge for six months. It was put in for an earthquake or a tornado or something where there were no communications for four or five days. We don’t need, Republican or Democrat, somebody up at the office deciding for six months or a year that that’s what we’re going to do. We are three branches of government, and we need to use all of our three branches of government.
“Some people say that’s political. No, that ain’t political. The political part is coming from the other side,” he added. “We’ve meant to be a part of this conversation, and we’ve not been a part of it.”
While Beshear has been issuing COVID-19 related orders from his office, the state legislature has been unable to address any of these policies -- and is unable to call themselves into session constitutionally to do so, as Upchurch explained to one individual who asked a question about why they couldn’t.
“We keep saying that we’re going to have to go back and visit these things legislatively,” said Upchurch. “Twelve months ago, everything was fine. We were going into a legislative session, and now we’re starting to get questions that none of us have ever heard of, issues and things. Now we’ve had eight months under it, and we’re figuring out the powers that the legislature has, and the power that the governor has, things that we’ve extended to governors in the past, not expecting them to do that overreach.
“So we’re learning here in the last eight months that we as a legislature, we’ve got to do some things that pull back that power of the governor,” he continued. “I’m fairly confident, in fact, that (since) we (Republicans) control both houses, the House and the Senate, that you’re going to see some pretty powerful legislation that’s passed in both houses that can do that.”
Girdler expressed his support for BR 130, a pre-filed bill in Kentucky that would put a two-week limit on executive emergency authority. He also said he hoped to have a constitutional amendment added allowing the legislature to call itself back in if needed, though that might not be on a ballot for another year, noted Upchurch.
“I get calls all the time, I get text messages asking me, ‘Why are you all staying at home? Why don’t you go up there and do something?’ I wish I could,” said Girdler. “... This can’t go on, and keep doing this. We’ve got to have the legislators involved in making the decisions based upon economic development, tourism. ... I really believe we have to take our state back.”
Girdler urged patience from the public, however. “We’re going to have to start all over. ... We’ve got 30 days. ... It takes forever to get bills from here to there.”
In reference to the possibility of mandating a vaccine for COVID-19 as has been another hot topic, Girdler advocated having a bill to make sure that’s voluntary, and said he would be “dead set against” making it a requirement for Kentuckians.
Added Meade, “I’m speaking for myself on this. ... I am not an anti-vaccination person. My kids have gotten their vaccinations for school, I’ve done it when I go on mission trips, things like that. But for me personally, I don’t want to rush into taking a vaccine if it’s not been proven and tested over a long period of time. I don’t want to send my kids into taking a vaccination that hasn’t been proven and tested.
“Just as I’ve said throughout this entire process of all these shutdowns, I didn’t feel like the shutdowns were necessary because I truly believe that the people of Kentucky are smart enough and intelligent enough to make the decisions for themselves in order to protect themselves,” he continued. “We don’t need help from government (on) how they have to live their lives.”
Another topic Girdler addressed was the state’s budget. They’ll have to pass a budget again this year, since they only did a one-year budget in 2020, considering the hectic nature of the shortened session -- Upchurch called it the “weirdest” one he’s been a part of -- and COVID-19 ramifications. The 2021 session will be a short one of 30 days, and legislators expect they’ll have much to do in that condensed span of time.
Addressing a comment from Somerset Mayor Alan Keck about having more control over decisions at the local level, a sentiment all the legislators who spoke on it agreed with -- said Meade, “The closer you get to the people, the better that you can govern” -- Meade took the opportunity to mention that some in the state wanting to go to “more of a consumption-based tax,” such as in several surrounding states “that have thriving economies because of that,” he noted.
“They’re relying on folks traveling through the states (to contribute to paying consumption taxes); it lessens the tax burden on the people in the state,” said Meade. “... If we can, I’m hoping that we pass some of that process down to local governments.”
Upchurch addressed the possible need to look at fuel taxes, and whether more may be necessary to help with struggling infrastructure.
“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “We’ve got electric cars — I think there’s about 1,500 of them in Kentucky (and about 7,000-8,000 hybrids) — but they’re basically, electric vehicles especially, driving on our highways for free. They’re not paying into the road fund. So every time you go buy a gallon of gas ... 26 cents of that goes directly to our road fund.”
Clue was beyond pleased at the turn-out — even if he did have to work to focus the attention of a chatty crowd that, as he noted, was maybe having the first chance in months to socialize with each other as they normally do — which contained a whole host of the community’s business and political leaders, including Keck, Burnside Mayor Robert Lawson, Pulaski Judge-Executive Steve Kelley, and many others.
“We’ve said for months now that it was time to get back to business,” said Clue. “I believe people are starting to agree with us on that philosophy. We think that people can come out to events, that we can do that in a safe and responsible way, and we have to live our lives at some point. This is a tremendous turnout with over 100 people here tonight, and I’m very confident that we’re going to see more and more people start coming out to events.
That said, “if people aren’t comfortable, that’s why we still have virtual options. The Facebook Lives, the Zoom (meetings),” said Clue. “... We understand and respect the fact that some people may not feel comfortable coming out yet to their first event. We respect that. So the virtual component for us is important and we’re going to keep that in place indefinitely moving forward at all Chamber events.”