It was a busy week in Frankfort as several Interim Joint Committees met to discuss issues the state is facing. The common theme in all the committee meetings continues to be COVID-19. This virus appears to be with us for the near future, so it is important to find safe, effective, common sense solutions to move all aspects of Kentucky forward.
All eyes were on the Education Committee this week as discussion revolved around the impact of COVID-19 on reopening Kentucky’s schools. Members discussed questions and concerns regarding critical needs for schools to reopen; many questions were left unanswered because there is still so much unknown. State officials are working together to open schools while keeping our children and educators safety as the top priority. Individual school districts will make school opening dates, models of teaching, and guidelines. Many schools have started announcing when schools will be reopening and what a “normal” school day will look like. We are hearing from school districts across the state that are adopting plans that combine both in person and online learning to give parents an option. Others are looking at block schedules that allow dividing students into groups or “blocks,” with a rotating schedule for in person learning.
The General Assembly is considering what we can do through legislation to aid schools through this pandemic. Before adjourning this year’s session, we passed an amended version of SB 177 that provided emergency relief for school districts during the state of emergency that will expire in December. Most, if not all, of Kentucky school districts, have already used the federal funding provided by the CARES Act. The Kentucky Department of Education has purchased 12,500 thermometers, but more funds are needed and requested to acquire cleaning supplies and other virus mitigation measures such as instructional technology, masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass shields.
With participation in school athletics identified as the number one prevention dropout tool in the country, we are hearing a lot about how important it is to get sports up and running throughout the state. As it stands now, school sports will reconvene this fall. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) will be taking precautions to ensure all students are healthy and safe while playing games. KHSAA will revisit regulations regarding student attendance and grades to play sports due to restrictions of COVID-19. We do know that some states will be prohibited from traveling sports because of the virus.
On Friday, the Kentucky Board of Education announced that they hired Jason Glass to serve as the new Commissioner of Education. While I have not had the opportunity to meet Mr. Glass, I am pleased to learn that he is a Kentucky native. I look forward to working with him to create public policies that put our children first. He certainly will have his hands full as he takes over our schools during a pandemic.
The Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture also met this week and discussed several timely topics, including the condition of our state’s meat industry. As the largest beef cattle producing state east of the Mississippi, Kentucky was hit hard when the demand for beef and meat suddenly dried up with restaurants’ closures. The meat industry was further negatively affected by the closing of many of our meat processing plants because of COVID outbreaks. However, my colleagues and I were relieved to learn that the meat industry is recovering — albeit slowly — through investments with state and federal funds. We also discussed the Kentucky State Fair, which will take place in mid-August. Although many of our neighboring states decided to cancel their state fairs, the Kentucky State Fair made considerable adjustments to allow for social distancing and increased sanitation. The prioritization of public health was paramount in the decision-making process of how the state fair will operate, and I am pleased that it will continue this year.
Judiciary members discussed police body cameras and COVID-19 liabilities for businesses. Only two states in the nation currently mandate police officers to wear body cameras. While the consensus is that those body cameras would help provide better transparency, improve trust, and enhance the safety of our officers, they do not capture the officer’s mindset based on what he or she perceived was occurring. There is a lot to consider financially when making this decision. Currently, local departments across the state have their policies in place for body cameras, and their city governments cover the cost of the equipment. The General Assembly will continue looking into this issue as we prepare for the 2021 session. The legislature is also reviewing lawsuit protections for businesses due to COVID-19 exposures. Kentucky businesses that were not deemed essential were forced to close their doors and left with the uncertainty of reopening and not having no income. Companies cannot afford legal suits, and protections should be put in place either through legislation or an executive order by the governor to protect what these businesses have left.
During the Natural Resources and Energy Committee meeting, we heard a report from officials with the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program or LIHEAP. This is a federal program that has been in place for decades, and currently serves residents in all 120 Kentucky counties who may be struggling to meet immediate home energy needs. Since the outbreak of COVID, more families now meet the criteria for assistance with their utility bills through this program. Through the Federal CARES ACT, Kentucky was awarded over $13 million for this program to assist families who are struggling financially. Because of this additional federal funding, a new program is now in the works that would essentially create year-round utility assistance for commonwealth residents. This is excellent news, and I am proud that residents in every corner of our state can take advantage of this effective program.
Unemployment insurance (IU) continues to be a big focus for us, as thousands of Kentuckians are still waiting to have their claims processed. The Appropriations and Revenue Committee heard testimony from the administration about a $7.4 million, 30-day contract with accounting firm Ernst and Young to bring 300 additional workers into the UI Program. While I am pleased that the Governor finally recognizes that the UI problems need to be addressed, I wish he would have considered our offers of help and collaboration when the problem first became obvious. Instead, it looks like once again he is committing the state to massive spending without consulting other government officials to see if alternatives exist. Consider that $7.4 million for 300 workers breaks down to more than $24,600 per employee for one month.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s update. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions, I am always here to help.
I can be reached at home anytime or through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 800-372-7181. You can also contact me via e-mail at Chris.Freeland@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of committee meetings and potential legislation through the Kentucky Legislature Home Page at legislature.ky.gov.
Rep. Chris Freeland, represents the 6th District, which includes Lyon, Marshall and part of McCracken County.