Kentucky GOP lawmakers ready to wield clout in 2021 session

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) – After months of watching mostly from the sidelines as Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear doled out pandemic relief and issued orders to combat the spread of the coronavirus, Republican lawmakers are ready to put their own imprint on policymaking in Kentucky.

Republicans begin this year’s legislative session in an increasingly dominant position after expanding their House and Senate supermajorities in the 2020 election. Wielding the power to override any Beshear veto, Republicans will be able shape legislation to their liking, including bills dealing with COVID-19 or policies for the post-pandemic world as vaccines roll out to more people. They’ve signaled their intent to rein in some of the governor’s emergency powers.

Rep. Jason Nemes said he and other Republicans are ready to extend a “hand of friendship” to work with Beshear, but added bluntly: “We’re going to have the power” once the session begins.

The General Assembly convenes its 30-day session Tuesday. Passing another state budget tops the agenda – a heavy lift after lawmakers opted to pass a one-year budget, rather than the traditional two-year spending plan, in 2020 because of uncertainties caused by the pandemic. Other virus-related issues are also expected to receive considerable attention.

Those include efforts to provide protections from lawsuits for businesses that followed virus protocols. And some lawmakers intend to push to limit a governor’s executive powers in times of emergency, a reflection of growing GOP frustration with some of Beshear’s orders that restricted economic activity to try to contain the virus’s spread.

Another pending issue stemming from a turbulent 2020 is legislation that would ban most no-knock search warrants in the state. It stems from the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed during a police raid in March at her apartment in Louisville, which has since banned no-knock warrants locally.

The looming struggle over executive branch authority garnered much of the pre-session attention. Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer recently pointed to the GOP’s dominance in the election as a mandate from voters to rein in a governor’s emergency powers.

“I think Kentuckians sent a message on Election Day that they want Republicans to lead and lead with authority and to lead quickly to limit executive branch powers in the time that we’re in,” he said.

Pushing back, Beshear has credited his actions with saving lives, noting that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Neighboring Tennessee, for example, has one of the highest per-capita case rates in the nation.

“An emergency requires a strong executive response,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “And just look at Kentucky, where we’ve had that. Yes, it’s required sacrifice, but we’ve been one of the best states in the entire country at protecting the lives of our people.”

Previewing his strategy for the upcoming session, Beshear said, “You’re going to see us in the governor’s office work to rise above politics” in charting Kentucky’s course for the post-COVID world. The governor said his priorities for the session include defeating the coronavirus and providing relief for Kentuckians who lost jobs or struggled to keep businesses afloat.

Other priorities include boosting public education and health care – issues at the top of the governor’s agenda before the pandemic hit. The state has opportunities to make crucial investments, thanks to the influx of federal relief money that helped shore up the virus-battered economy, Beshear said.

“In each instance where we spent those dollars, they cycled through the economy better than could ever be expected,” the governor said. “And because of that, we expect to have one of the better budgets of the last two decades and one that provides us a one-time opportunity to stimulate our economy, to shorten this recession, to help individuals and business owners and to truly invest in ways that create jobs and position us for the future.”

Beshear will unveil his spending proposals Wednesday evening in his State of the Commonwealth/budget speech that he will deliver virtually because of the pandemic.

As they did in the latter stages of the 2020 session, lawmakers again will face the challenge of conducting business amid the ongoing threat from COVID-19 when they reconvene. Senate President Robert Stivers has said the legislature’s own coronavirus-related protocols will alter the way lawmakers work. That will restrict the number of issues they’ll be able to consider, along with the limited number of work days and the need to pass another state budget, he said recently.

Thayer has predicted a “lean” agenda focused on a handful of key issues, which he said fits into the governing philosophy of Republicans.

“We are a conservative governing body and we should act like it,” he said recently.

This year’s legislative session is scheduled to wrap up in late March.

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