COVID-19 will continue to impact issues in 2021 legislative session, lawmakers tell business leaders at Kentucky Chamber event

Gov. Andy Beshear Addresses Business Leaders

Serving as the keynote speaker, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said this week is a time of renewed hope as the state saw the first of COVID-19 vaccine distributions on Monday.

“This is the path to victory, and I will be getting the vaccine to show it is safe, as this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” Beshear said.

Beshear also spoke to the immense sacrifice and pain made by Kentuckians during the pandemic, including deaths, a huge hit to the economy, job loss, record levels of unemployment, and much more.

“Kentucky could not have seen the successes it has with lower case and death rates than many other states without the help of the business community, especially as many have donated and manufactured PPE in the time of need,” Beshear said. “I know Kentucky’s business community is committed to getting the economy back on track.”

To do that, he said, there will be many opportunities in 2021 to defeat COVID-19 and make decisions to help make life better for all Kentuckians moving forward.

“Our administration will focus on increased investment in education, short- and long-term solutions to ensure critical investments in infrastructure, and new jobs in industries of the future, Beshear said, also pointing to revenue generating measures like sports wagering and a bipartisan solution on historic racing, medical marijuana, and more.

The governor concluded by reiterating that 2021 will have some difficult months and the economy will be different but Kentucky will have many opportunities for real, bold change to help build a stronger, better Commonwealth.

Criminal Justice Reform and Substance Use Disorder Recovery

Senate Judiciary Chair Whitney Westerfield, newly appointed House Judiciary Chair Ed Massey, House Minority Leader Joni Jenkins, Senate Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, and Sen. Gerald Neal kicked off the conference with a conversation on criminal justice reforms and substance use disorder recovery moderated by Ray Daniels, owner of Equity Solutions Group, LLC out of Lexington.

The panel agreed that criminal justice issues must be addressed in 2021, and while there may not be huge, sweeping reforms in a short session with many huge issues on the table, they will be looking at areas where progress can be made. They pointed to local policies recently implemented in Louisville amid civil unrest, like no-knock warrants, and also discussed other policies to help save the state money while keeping citizens safe.

The lawmakers said there is more will to tackle, but these issues and many of the items are part of bipartisan discussions. Rep. Massey said one of the bills he will be pushing in 2021 is lowering the felony theft threshold, as Kentucky falls behind other states on the issue. “We are putting people behind bars and ruining young lives for small offenses, which is costly to the state in many ways,” Massey said.

Sen. Neal and Rep. Jenkins both applauded the Kentucky Chamber and broader business community for their work on both criminal justice issues and addressing the state’s struggles with substance use disorder.

Budget and Revenue

As legislators look to craft a one-year state budget during the 2021 session, Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chair Chris McDaniel and Rep. Brandon Reed discussed their expectations with 2022 Kentucky Chamber Board Chair Diane Medley.

Both McDaniel and Reed said they were glad the legislature decided to only craft half of the state budget in 2020, as the state and country were still in the very beginning stages of the pandemic with much uncertainty. Lawmakers chose to go with the most pessimistic economic outlook to craft the first year of the budget and now have a small surplus. The Consensus Forecasting Group has now said they expect a little additional revenue for them to craft the 2022 budget as well.

Federal stimulus to individuals and help with the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and more are all credited with the more positive economic implications. McDaniel and Reed said the state House and Senate will both likely take a conservative approach in crafting the next year and not include additional spending as so much is still unknown and the state continues to face huge liabilities and other issues unaddressed.

The unemployment insurance issue is something that is essential to address, Reed said. He stated he would like to see any possible additional money go to paying off the unemployment insurance loan the state has taken out with the federal government because businesses have already taken a huge hit and this is just another situation that is harming them. He emphasized even if there is more federal stimulus provided that could be used to help with this, those funds are still taxpayer dollars that must be used responsibly, and he feels spending it on businesses that keep the economy running is a good investment.

McDaniel agreed and noted that even companies that were deemed essential and/or did not lay off any employees will be hit with increases in their unemployment insurance rates and said saddling businesses with this additional burden that was created by the government is problematic and one of the biggest things that must be addressed.

Infrastructure Investment

Discussion on Kentucky’s transportation issues began with an update on the impact of the Brent Spence Bridge in northern Kentucky being shut down and the need to address this issue. Rep. Sal Santoro said the bridge being shut down has a huge impact for his region but also all of Kentucky, the United States, and Canada as so much product moves across that bridge. He added conversations must begin around significant repairs to the Brent Spence Bridge, as well as building a partner bridge, and ways to fund those improvements for the region.

Meanwhile, an increase in the state’s investment in infrastructure continues to be a critical conversation in Kentucky. Sen. Jimmy Higdon noted in the 18 years he has been in elected office, an increase in the gas tax has been a conversation each year but this year in particular the definite need is extremely obvious in the midst of the pandemic. He added Kentucky’s current 26 cents per gallon gas tax is the same as it was in 2011 while road construction costs have increased by 42% since 2011. This has resulted in the state doing a lot less because we have much less to work with.

Rep. Santoro, who is the bill sponsor each year to address this issue, stated the gas tax is a consumer fee and an immediate return on investment because it goes to ensuring good, safe roads. He stated he feels if a fair and reasonable approach is presented in 2021 it could be voted on and passed.

Another form of critical infrastructure that was discussed is broadband. Rep. Phillip Pratt said while the state has put some money toward helping low-income students get access to broadband, there is still a huge underserved population across the state that must be helped. He pointed to Tennessee using $61 million in CARES Act funding to help that population, and he said Kentucky must look at similar solutions. Rep. Samara Heavrin echoed those concerns, adding broadband access is critical to ensuring economic growth, as well as personal growth, and the education of Kentucky’s children.

COVID-19 Response (Liability Issues and Health Care)

As the state saw the first COVID-19 vaccines distributed this week, Sen. Ralph Alvarado said as a physician he is very encouraged by the vaccine. He noted that the FDA process is very rigorous, and they feel good about the safety of it. He called the vaccine a “modern marvel,” as people in Kentucky will have received both doses by the end of January. Alvarado said the quicker the state is able to get people vaccinated, the quicker we will be able to get back to normal.

One of the big issues that has come about as a result of the pandemic is liability protections against frivolous lawsuits for those following COVID-19 guidelines. Sen. Stephen Meredith stated the pandemic is something like we have never seen before and “no one should make a fortune on the misfortunes of others.” There has been a learning curve for everyone as guidance was changing daily for a long time, and those operating in good faith must be protected, he added.

Rep. Kim Moser said one of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been telehealth and the new ways providers and others are utilizing that platform. She said the expanded use of telehealth will be important to continue to help people get the care they need, and she has pre-filed a bill that she hopes to see passed in 2021 to make permanent many of the relaxed regulations and changes that have been made in the face of the pandemic.

Freshman Faces

Newly-elected legislators from across Kentucky joined Kentucky Chamber Communications Director Jacqueline Pitts to share more about themselves, why they ran for office, and more.

Representative-Elect Bray (H-71) gained an interest in economic development and lifting up his community while working as the city administrator of Mt. Vernon. He looks forward to continuing his work, now as a legislator.

Representative-Elect Josh Branscum (H-83) said a driving reason he wanted to run for office was he wanted to make sure there were job opportunities for families in his district as well as across the Commonwealth.

Representative-Elect Jennifer Decker (H-58) says she spent most of her adult life studying government and the constitution. She wants to make a difference in protecting that constitution and promoting prosperity, and raising the standard of living for Kentuckians.

The panel also kept things light-hearted discussing some of their hidden talents, unique things about their district, their first job, and other topics to help get to know them.

Signature Industries

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, Senate Minority Leader Morgan McGarvey, Rep. Adam Koenig, and Rep. Susan Westrom discussed policies impacting Kentucky’s signature industries in a panel moderated by Vince Gabbert of Keeneland.

All panelists agreed Kentucky’s signature industries like horse racing and bourbon are critical to economic development, jobs, tourism, and much more, and it is critical to pass policies to boost and support those sectors. Passing a bipartisan solution to the Kentucky Supreme Court’s decision on historic racing is something the lawmakers said they feel needs to be tackled in 2021. A success in this area was also highlighted as Rep. Koenig’s alcohol shipping bill passed in 2020 is now in full effect as he purchased the first bottle of bourbon to be shipped on Monday.

Education and Workforce

Getting children back in the classroom in January, the long-term impacts of virtual learning, and legislative focus on education in 2021 were all topics covered by a panel including Senate Education Chair Max Wise, Rep. Kim Banta, and Rep. Russell Webber.

Panelists agreed that they feel the governor should not have closed schools to in-person learning and said they feel it should have been a local control issue. They also said they believe students will suffer long term consequences, socially and academically, because of the pandemic. In 2021, they will be focused on a strong education budget and funding for increased mental health help provided through the school safety act passed in recent years.

Energy and Environment

Rep. Jim Gooch, Sen. Brandon Smith, and Rep. Adam Bowling discussed energy and environment issues. They talked about the importance of affordable and reliable energy and the impact of energy mix transitions on local communities. Moderator Chris Perry, President and CEO for the Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, asked about the blackouts in California and how likely such scenarios could happen in Kentucky. Rep. Gooch discussed the importance of baseload generation in ensuring resiliency of the grid and affordable energy. The panel also discussed renewable energy and the recent reforms to net metering, the growth of renewables, and the importance of paying the costs of using the grid.

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