The Kentucky General Assembly, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, convenes the 2021 session on Tuesday, Jan. 5. Until about 20 years ago, legislators only met in odd years to elect leadership, make committee assignments, and take care of other administrative tasks. At least this was the case under the state constitution adopted in 1891. Kentuckians voted to amend that constitution in 2000, allowing legislators to deal with actual issues each year.
Short sessions generally provide a great opportunity to work on issues that might otherwise be overshadowed during a budget session but are equally critical to our commonwealth’s future. Just like so much of everything else, COVID has thrown that plan out the window. As you may remember, the budget we approved earlier this year only provided funding for one year. It was the most sensible step to take since we knew little then, and not much more now, what the pandemic would do to our economy or our state’s needs. That means that this session we will pass another one-year budget to take us through June of 2022. We may also re-open the current year’s budget to ensure the state’s resources are being invested wisely.
The Kentucky House is constitutionally obligated to pass a budget, a challenge even in a 60-day legislative session. It will be even more difficult in a 30-day legislative session with a limited idea of what the future holds for the state’s economy. I was pleased to learn that the Consensus Forecasting Group (CFG,) a panel of economists that the state brings together to predict revenue, estimates that the next few months may be less bleak than originally thought. Even the economists agree that their predictions are just educated guesses. One of them used the term “dart throwing” to describe how she felt about the task.
The budget will keep us busy, but that does not mean we will not make time for other issues. The question I get the most from constituents concerns the power a governor has in a state of emergency. According to the Kentucky Supreme Court, our current Governor is within his rights to take some of the steps he has taken. However, his closure of religious schools is at the heart of a case that the United States Supreme Court may weigh in on. This session will provide us with an opportunity to better define those emergency powers. Until now, no one could have predicted that a governor would abuse a state law created to help our state cope with tornadoes and ice storms to take over the state with no input from anyone but a small group of political appointees. Several bills have already been filed on this topic, and the final version we pass will likely take into consideration all of them as well as the parameters set by the Supreme Court’s decision. I think we can all agree that a governor needs the ability to lead the state through an emergency, but that does not necessarily mean the power to single-handedly spend millions of federal dollars, issue orders without information to back them up, and shut down portions of our economy without evidence that it will benefit Kentuckians.
Like many Kentuckians, I was supportive of the administration’s early COVID efforts, but then it became obvious that the response was inconsistent and often random. Major decisions were made with little or no information to back them up made public. When asked what the state’s contact tracing efforts have shown to be the leading causes of the virus spreading, the governor simply said that contact tracers have been unable to gather enough data — after we spent more than $100 million. Two weeks after restaurants and schools were ordered to close, we are still seeing cases of COVID skyrocket. Thousands of Kentuckians are out of work or out of pay, with no evidence to say that it would even help fight COVID.
We all want to keep Kentuckians healthy, and I take this pandemic seriously, because it could be deadly for so many. It is important to remember that this virus is not the only challenge and we cannot afford to neglect our responsibilities. As you can see, we have a great deal on our agenda this session, I hope you will reach out to share your opinion on the legislation we will enact. I can be reached at home anytime or through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181 or by e-mail at Phillip.Pratt@lrc.ky.gov. You can keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky legislature’s website at legislature.ky.gov.
Phillip Pratt represents the 62nd House District.