FRANKFORT ⎯ Only six legislative days remain until we adjourn sine die, with bills churning out of the General Assembly as the nights grow longer and the 2021 Regular Session dwindles. We are covering a wide range of legislation that will have lasting effects on the citizens of the Commonwealth. Some of it is good policy, and some of it is not.
As we navigate our way through the latter portion of the pandemic, legislators still face the task of constructing a budget due to the 2020 Regular Session being cut short. The Budget Conference Committee will meet this upcoming week to hash out details and finalize the non-traditional, 30-day budget.
Governor Andy Beshear called Eastern Kentucky legislators into a meeting with representatives of the executive branch and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to update members on how we can help our districts get through the recent flooding. There soon will be a portal for making a public or individual assistance claim through FEMA. However, you will need proof to be accepted. Please be sure to have photo documentation of damage to use when claim submission information becomes available. If you need assistance with damage due to the recent flooding, call 800-451-1945 to ask for help. Numerous local organizations have banded together to help in this effort. All services are free, but service is no guaranteed due to the high demand. The hotline will remain open through March 26.
One bill passed off the Senate floor this week which has caused some controversy among lawmakers is Senate Bill (SB) 5. SB 5 gives business owners liability protections for an additional year after the COVID-19 state of emergency ends. The bill would apply to a range of businesses as well as health providers and governments. The legal protections cover entities from litigation unless they engage in conduct that is wanton, willful, malicious, or grossly negligent to an individual.
The problem one may run into with SB 5 is how difficult it is to prove such conduct, especially with how broad the language is as written. There are circumstances when liability protections are warranted, but this legislation goes too far. I see it as a solution looking for a problem and fear there may be unintended consequences that hurt ordinary citizens. With a 24-11 vote in the Senate, it now goes to the House for further consideration. I hope as the House reviews the proposal over the waning days of the session, they will amend the bill and address some of the concerns expressed by myself and my colleagues.
Other Bills Passed off the Senate floor this week include:
House Bill 208 is an extension of Senate Bill 177 passed during the 2020 Session in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. HB 208 requires public schools would have to be open for in-person instruction at least four days a week for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year. Schools would have the option to operate under a hybrid model where students spend part of the week attending in-person classes and the rest from home. The legislation would require schools to allow a student to attend in-person classes at least twice a week under the hybrid model.
This bill also limits the remaining amount of nontraditional instruction (NTI) days school districts are allowed to use. Under HB 208, school districts will only be allotted five NTI days to use for the remainder of the school year. If a school district needs to close to in-person learning for more than five days, that district will be required to add “make-up” days to its academic calendar.
I feel this bill is a legislative overreach of our local school boards. I believe decisions made on education should be at the local level because situations can differ from district to district. However, it passed in the Senate 28-8. I voted no.
SB 128 provides local public school districts the opportunity to allow K-12 students up to the age of 19 (before August 30, 2021), currently enrolled in Kentucky, to request the use of the 2021-2022 school year as a supplemental year. If the local school district agrees, it provides students the opportunity to repeat their current grade and supplement coursework already completed. Many Kentucky students faced education hurdles due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill will help students who have been left behind academically due to the pandemic get back on the right track. It passed 36-0 in the Senate.
SB 228 changes the process for filling a vacancy in the office of US Senator. It would require the Governor to select a successor in the same party as the leaving Senator. Under current law, the Governor can choose someone of their preference to serve out the remainder of a US Senate term. I find the timing of this bill odd and I also question the constitutionality. SB 228 passed in the Senate 28-8. I voted no.
HB 50 mandates the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act in Kentucky, ensuring equal coverage of mental health and substance use conditions as for physical health. Mental health has been a growing concern among many Kentuckians and has exacerbated due to the pandemic. It is a bipartisan proposal that will help a great deal of Kentuckians, and I am proud to support it. It passed the Senate 36-0.
HB 8 requires quasi-governmental entities (i.e. health departments, rape crisis centers, mental health centers) to pay retirement based on their employees. It allows these entities to reimburse liabilities owed to the Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS) for employees over 30 years instead of the current flat-rate. HB 8 aims to assist with the ailing pension system without quasi agencies having to cut services or staff. It passed unanimously.
HB 95 caps the cost-sharing requirements for prescription insulin at $35 per 30 day supply. It passed the Senate as amended 35-0. I want to thank Rep. Danny Bentley, R-Russell, for his work on this bipartisan bill that will help so many Kentuckians.
Bills passed in the Senate will now go to the House for further consideration. House bills passed and amended in the Senate will return to the House for concurrence or nonconcurrence. House Bills passed without amendments in the Senate will be delivered to the Governor for final passage.
In the remaining six days, we still have much work ahead of us. The legislature will reconvene on Thursday, March 11, and Friday, March 12, following the Budget Conference Committee meetings in the earlier part of the week. Monday, March 15, and Tuesday, March 16, we will meet for concurrence or nonconcurrence on bills amended by the other chamber. These will likely be the final two days of legislative business before lawmakers take a week and a half break for veto days.
If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, I remain accessible by email at Robin.Webb@LRC.KY.GOV. You can also leave a message for me on the Legislative Message Line at (800) 372-7181. Citizens with hearing impairments can use the Kentucky Relay Service at 711.