With the first full month of interim joint committee meetings behind us, this week I want to share some insight we gained during the last few meetings.
You may remember from previous updates that the legislature uses the time between sessions to gather information and prepare for the upcoming session. The interim also gives us a chance to look into state programs and agencies to make sure they are serving Kentuckians as they should be.
The legislative branch is responsible for holding state government accountable to the taxpayers who fund it and the people it serves. While we will not convene again until Jan. 5, we are already working on legislation that we will consider. Keep reading for just a few examples of what our interim joint committees looked at during the last week of June, check out the Legislative Record on the Legislative Research Commission’s website (www.legislature.ky.gov) for a more detailed report.
• Economic Development and Workforce Investment: With more than 56,000 Kentuckians waiting as long as 31/2 months for their unemployment insurance (UI) claims to be processed, members of the Economic Development and Workforce Investment Interim Joint Committee requested that program administrators come in to discuss the program’s failures.
During testimony, we learned that the Governor once again plans to contract with an outside provider to move these cases along. While I am hopeful this will be what it takes to get these folks paid, it is the second time in three months the state has brought in additional staff to deal with this problem. The first time was expensive and unsuccessful, this time it looks like the contract will be for more than $7 million and paid for with federal money through the CARES allocations pushed through by Sen. McConnell.
We also learned that the administration applied for an $865 million federal loan to shore up the UI fund and continue paying out claims. While the governor has the legal authority to do so, it is extremely unusual to do so without the public’s knowledge and at least discussing it with the legislature. Frankly, I am extremely concerned that this lack of transparency is part of a pattern and is extremely dangerous.
• Local Government: The Department for Local Government testified about how the state will allocate $300 million in federal funding from the CARES Act. This is a one-time grant designed to reimburse city and county governments for costs associated with COVID-19, so it is critical that they are allocated appropriately and not approved for new programs that will require long term funding.
According to the federal government, eligible reimbursements can include but are not limited to: the purchase of personal protective equipment for health and safety employees; expenses for communication and enforcement by governments for COVID-19-related public health orders; expenses for food delivery to nursing homes and vulnerable populations; improvements necessary for public employees to telework to comply with public health precautions; expenses for disinfection of public spaces and facilities; and payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services and similar employees who dedicated substantial time to mitigating or responding to the public health emergency.
• Tourism, Small Business, and Information Technology: Committee members heard from child care providers and employers about how COVID-19 has impacted them and what needs to be done to help them remain safe as they reopen. We all recognize that Kentucky parents struggled to find quality child care prior to the pandemic, which makes it even more critical that the state work with child care providers to make reopening as straightforward as possible. Many centers reopened under COVID guidelines on June 15, but the mandates are taking their toll on centers, particularly those that are privately owned or operated by a church or other nonprofit.
The most eye-opening testimony came from the owner of a child care center, who shared insight based on her center. According to her, the newly mandated group size reductions have resulted in 20 fewer child care slots and a 22.4% reduction in revenue. At the same time, her personnel costs have increased about 20% to meet the staffing requirements of each class coverage.
Thousands of working Kentuckians need child care to return to work, and they need to know that their children are safe and learning. According to the Child Care Council of Kentucky, before COVID-19 there were 165,314 child care slots. Unfortunately, after polling members there are concerns that between 11 and 15% may close as a result of the pandemic and the state’s shutdown.
• Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection: Members of the Interim Joint Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection heard testimony concerning government overreach during the COVID-19 outbreak from the Beshear Administration with relation to religious entities.
The Commonwealth Policy Center testified about religious freedom. In the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the center advised churches to heed the leadership of the governor and public health experts, promoting cooperation by doing their part in slowing the spread of the virus. However, since the beginning of the virus spread, the center feels that there have been serious inconsistencies in government policy and unequal treatment toward churches. It was difficult for all of us to hear the executive order deeming churches nonessential when the governor deemed grocery stores, home improvement centers, liquor stores, and abortion clinics as essential.
Religious freedom is fundamental to who we are as a people. It is guaranteed in both the state and federal constitutions. Kentucky was one of only ten states that banned all in-person worship services.
I hope you know that I always welcome your comments and concerns on any issues impacting our Commonwealth, even while we are not in session.
As always, I can still be reached through the toll-free message line; if you have any comments or questions, just call 800-372-7181. You can also contact me via e-mail at Chris.Freeland@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of the Kentucky Legislature Home Page at legislature.ky.gov.
Rep. Chris Freeland represents the 6th District, which includes Lyon County, Marshall County and part of McCracken County.