FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) – After an extended weekend break prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, the Kentucky General Assembly resumed Tuesday to a new reality: “Socially distancing” lawmakers conducting public business without the public present.
While leaders of the legislature’s supermajority Republican party said they were taking precautions to continue working in the final weeks of the session, some Democrats and interest groups said the decision ran counter to public health guidelines and chose not to attend.
House and Senate leaders promised “a number of safeguards and precautions” to contain the spread of the COVID-19 illness.
Those steps included closing the Capitol Annex, where committee meetings occur, to the general public and allowing only legislators, staff, credentialed media and other invited guests – such as those testifying on a bill – to attend.
Leaders pledged to increase public access to meetings broadcast online by KET and the Legislative Research Commission. And they said they were suspended using door keepers, pages and other personnel with access to the House and Senate floor.
The changes were evident. At an 11 a.m. meeting of the Senate’s economic development, tourism and labor cabinet, members appeared to sit with at least one chair between each other. Rooms typically packed with lobbyists and citizens were nearly empty, with legislative or other government staff sitting here and there.
“We believe that the General Assembly has a responsibility to the people of Kentucky and our membership is committed to fulfilling that obligation,” House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers said in a joint statement.
They said the safety precautions were based on public health officials’ recommendations and those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“While this is a departure from business as usual, we are taking every step possible to use available technology to ensure transparency and accessibility,” Osborne and Stivers said.
Osborne said the decision was made after consulting with Gov. Andy Beshear and health officials. Responding to some Democratic criticism, he said Beshear and Democrats in the House and Senate were “fully supportive of the measures.”
But Michael Aldridge, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, called on the legislature Tuesday to “take an extraordinary – but necessary – step, and adjourn.”
Aldridge said in a statement that it’s not enough for House and Senate leaders’ to encourage citizens to use email, a legislative message line and letters to letters to influence the legislative process.
“These suggested actions fall far short of what is required for Kentuckians to be fully engaged in decisions that will impact their communities and families,” he said.
Eddie Campbell, president of the Kentucky Education Association, criticized what he called the legislature’s “invitation only” approach to conducting business.
“Democracy does not work ‘virtually’ or in the dark,” he said. “Bills and policies that would otherwise receive vocal outrage and opposition will pop up like mushrooms in that darkness.”
As the House session started shortly after 2 p.m., 83 of the 100 members were present.
Rep. Josie Raymond, a Louisville Democrat, was among those not in attendance. She said in a Twitter post that she stayed home to “protect someone I love who has a weakened immune system.”
She accused legislative leaders of “arrogantly continuing business as usual when life is not usual for any of our constituents. It sets a terrible example to flout recommendations from the CDC, White House, and Governor's Office.”
Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, said some Senators were advised by their doctors not to attend. “So we’re going to have to see how many people are able to be here and how much legislation we’re able to pass,” he said.
“We need to pass a budget,” McGarvey said. “We don’t need to pass a budget today.”
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said legislative officials are working to keep everyone safe this week.
“We’ve got work to do. We’re focused on doing it,” he said. “And as long as we are able, with the information we have, we’re going to stay here and get the job done.”
The state’s two-year budget and road plan are among two of the most significant pieces of legislation yet to pass in the session that ends April 15.
“What I want to do is pass the budget, a couple of other critical measures and then go home,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, a Republican from Louisville.
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