Girdler provides legislative update

Sen. Rick Girdler
15th District Representative

We are now in the closing days of the 2021 30-day Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly. Only six legislative days remain after Friday, March 5.

Important bills continued to move swiftly through the legislative process this week, and robust debate on critical topics was as prominent as ever.

First, however, I want to speak to recent severe weather events. The Governor declared a state of emergency concerning flash flooding, affecting communities from far southwestern Kentucky to far southeastern Kentucky. Last week’s declaration comes only a week shy of a year since the Governor declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Both figuratively and literally, it seems we continue to be hit by storms. The pandemic has threatened the elderly and immunocompromised people as well as contributing to an unemployment crisis. Severe winter weather covered our commonwealth in ice and left our people without power. Most recently, torrential rain has caused flooding of homes and businesses. Several counties received over six inches of rainfall. Many counties stretching across Kentucky received between 4 ½ to 5 ½ inches of rain. It was indeed a “perfect storm” as we received record levels of rain on top of melting ice.

The Kentucky National Guard has been activated to assist, and assessments will eventually be conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you have been personally impacted, please look for updates on assistance opportunities by visiting fema.gov/locations/kentucky. Persons living in counties declared eligible for individual assistance programs under a major presidential disaster declaration may register for assistance by visiting that site or calling 1-800-621-3362. In case of an emergency, always call 9-1-1.

Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM) and local emergency management personnel have worked hard alongside other heroes. Visit kyem.ky.gov for state updates, or contact that office by phone at 1-800-255-2587. Our Area 10 KYEM office can be reached by phone at 502-607-5639 or 502-229-3204. I pray for the safety and well-being of all who have been impacted by recent weather.

A Senate chamber report includes passage of yet another Senate priority bill, Senate Bill (SB) 5. Among numerous other measures, it is a bill that works to mitigate the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Kentucky’s economy. In this case, it most notably supports and reassures our society’s sectors trying to reopen or continue operation.

If made law, SB 5 would provide liability protections for premises owners or leaseholders, including places of worship, schools, restaurants, medical facilities, and more. It also establishes essential services protections to businesses in the food supply chain, manufacturers, distributors of personal protective equipment, child care service providers, and others. The measure, however, would not protect entities that act in a malicious or grossly negligent way by ignoring safety orders during a state of emergency.

SB 53 allows part-time adjunct instructors for the Kentucky Fire Commission to begin drawing benefits from the County Employees Retirement System without having to resign from that position, so long as the instructor has not previously participated in the Kentucky Employees Retirement System.

SB 122 would prohibit a state contract from being awarded to a business if it was already awarded the same or similar contract and if a contract was awarded through an executive agency lobbyist who was convicted of a crime related to contracts. It also prohibits a person associated with an agency from participating in a contract procurement for one year after termination.

SB 128 provides any student enrolled in a Kentucky public school in grades K-12 during the 2020-21 school year the opportunity to request to participate in a temporary program during the 2021-22 school year to retake or supplement the courses or grades the student has already taken. The ultimate decision of providing this opportunity will be left to local school districts, which must decide to accept all students’ requests or none at all.

The past year has been tough on so many, but Kentucky students have significantly been negatively impacted. A recent report from The Lexington Herald-Leader shows failing grades have skyrocketed. The good news is that most school districts have returned to some form of in-person learning, but the school year is almost over now. For the most part, all of the 2020-21 school year has remained virtual, and while districts, teachers, and parents or guardians have done their best, distance learning has been inadequate for many of our kids. Some children may not have the support they need at home. Our rural communities with broadband issues have proven to be a challenge for families. Quite simply, our students have missed their teachers, friends, and vital emotional and social experiences they deserve. SB 128 will provide local school districts with the ability to do right by students and families determining it is in their best interest to take advantage of a supplemental year of education. It will ensure participating seniors’ preparedness for whatever their next chapter in life is, and all students will have the peace of mind knowing the pandemic will not cause them to be left behind.

SB 165 requires the link to a legal advertisement or notice website that the local government electronically publishes to be no more than 30 characters in length and in easy-to-understand terms.

SB 172 requires people who damage underground utility facilities, such as pipelines and telecommunications lines during demolition or excavation, to cease activity and notify the underground facility operator or agency.

SB 181 is a companion bill to House Bill (HB) 4, a bill that made final passage this week. HB 4 is a constitutional amendment bill, so it does not require the Governor’s signature. Instead, it will go before you, the voters, on the next general election ballot. If supported by a majority of voters, HB 4 would provide the General Assembly with the ability to call itself back into session. SB 181 would establish the Senate President’s and House Speaker’s power to reconvene the General Assembly for up to 12 additional legislative days via joint proclamation. Additionally, it would allow for any bills filed by the deadline of the close of a Regular Session to survive until December 31 of that same year.

SB 228 would reform how a U.S. Senator of Kentucky is replaced should a vacancy occur. The bill would establish that the departing senator’s state party would nominate three people from whom the Governor would select. That individual would serve out the remainder of the term. Additionally, it sets stipulations about how long a replacement can serve before voters get to elect someone to take over that seat and establishes provisions about how such elections should be held.

HB 7, a House priority bill, was among bills that made final passage in the General Assembly and have headed to the Governor’s desk for consideration.

HB 7 establishes a Recovery Ready Communities council and program for cities and counties that want to demonstrate their addiction recovery commitment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 83,000 people died in the 12 months ending in July 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened addiction. The state has worked hard over the years to combat the scourge of drug addiction. Although the challenge is difficult, we must continue efforts to address the abuse of opioids and other narcotics. HB 7 is one more step in saving lives.

Another bill reaching the Governor’s desk, which was swiftly signed into law, was HB 208. The bill’s primary purpose was to extend past the March 4 expiration date, through the end of the 2020-21 school year, a local school district’s funding flexibility to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic.

When HB 208 was received in the Senate, some issues needed to be taken care of, and I am happy to say several concerns were addressed in the Senate’s changes. We removed districts’ ability to apply for more Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) days based on county COVID-19 case rate that is not in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which consider >100 per 100,000 population as high community transmission and, more specifically, >200 cases per 100,000 population as the highest risk of transmission in schools. Additionally, the Senate changes require districts to get students back in school for at least four days in-person on an A/B schedule by March 29 for the remainder of the school year. If that requirement is not met, school districts will lose access to flexible funding for hybrid schedules and the additional 5 NTI days.

To be clear, for the next school year, 2021-2022, should things be back to normal, NTI days will be limited to the statutory ten days, and no hybrid learning will be allowed in the absence of an executive order. It is worth noting that under SB 1 passed by the General Assembly—which the Governor has challenged—any such order suspending statutes related to school funding or allowing hybrid or virtual learning would have to be agreed to by the Kentucky Attorney General and would expire in 30 days without legislative approval at that time. It is time to get our kids back in the safe and conducive learning environment of a school. HB 208 with the Senate’s cleanup measures gets them there.

If you have questions or comments about any public policy issue, I certainly want to hear from you. You can contact me toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me at Rick.Girdler@lrc.ky.gov.

Senator Rick Girdler (R-Somerset) represents the 15th District, including Boyle, Lincoln, and Pulaski Counties. Senator Girdler is the co-chairman of the Capital Projects and Bond Oversight Committee. He also serves as vice-chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Banking and Insurance and is a member of the Economic Development, Tourism, and Labor Committee.