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Legislative update: Session session addressed pandemic-related issues

By JIMMY HIGDON
14th District State Senator

Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 — The Kentucky General Assembly got to work during a three-day extraordinary session that ended just before midnight on Thursday, Sept. 9th. Upon the Governor’s call for a session, we passed bills dealing with many aspects of the pandemic, ranging from education to public health and more. While no action taken during the pandemic will enjoy universal support, the senate majority took a balanced approach by considering public health, individual liberties, and localized control, showing the Governor and lawmakers can work together to address the challenges we face

SEN. JIMMY HIGDON

The extraordinary session follows the unanimous 7-0 ruling from the Supreme Court of Kentucky affirming the legislature’s role in determining state law. New COVID-19 mitigation strategies were considered to provide relief to institutions strained by the pandemic, including schools, hospitals, businesses, and nursing homes

House Joint Resolution 1 extended noncontroversial and agreeable orders and regulations. Examples include a prohibition on price gouging, waiving costs for COVID-19 related screenings, testing, immunizations, and lifting regulations that allow emergency responders and other agencies to address staffing challenges by rehiring retired employees.

Of particular note is that we did not extend the Governor’s mask mandate. We also returned Kentucky Board of Education members’ mask authority to the locally elected boards of education.

For federal funding and other regulations that we viewed as essential, we allowed a limited extension of the state of emergency declaration until January 15, 2022. The General Assembly returns in January for the start of the 2022 Regular Session. Lawmakers will be able to determine if the state of emergency is necessary to maintain beyond that point. The Governor retains the ability to call us back into session again if he deems it necessary.

SB 1 prioritizes in-person learning by stabilizing school funding, assisting with staff shortages, and creating conditions for state and local health departments to support local school districts with their COVID-19 mitigation plans. The legislature chose to provide districts with 20 days of remote instruction (not to be confused with Non-Traditional Learning) for flexibility in mitigating the spread in their local communities. The bill also provides much-needed relief to address staffing shortages by allowing easier rehiring of retired teachers.

Under this legislation, the Kentucky Department for Public Health (DPH) would develop a “test-to-stay” model for school districts to minimize quarantining for non-symptomatic students and staff, encouraging students to be in the classroom as much as possible. Additional language in SB 1 provides that DPH assist local school districts in implementing their board-approved COVID-19 plans, whether they concern a test-to-stay method, masking guidelines, contact tracing, or quarantine

A lot of work went into SB 2. It concerns more direct health-related matters. The bill assists health care providers, jails, prisons, homeless shelters, and local health departments in acquiring COVID-19 tests. It will allow paramedics to work in hospitals to relieve the nursing shortage. Hospital staffing shortages are an urgent matter and one that should have been addressed by the executive branch earlier in the pandemic and certainly ahead of the recent wave of COVID-19.

SB 2 also establishes safety protocols for loved ones to visit family members in long-term care facilities. Loneliness and separation from loved ones among residents have been heartbreaking. SB 2 recognizes the importance of social and emotional needs and defines criteria for a family member or friend to be designated as an essential, compassionate caregiver. The bill encourages vaccinations, COVID-19 testing, and greater access to monoclonal antibody treatments, such as Regeneron.

Other legislation included SB 3, which directs more than $69 million to help health care providers, schools, and others implement provisions of SB 1 and SB 2. These include purchasing COVID-19 tests, establishing regional monoclonal antibody treatment centers, and test-to-stay programs in schools. Additionally, SB 5, an economic development incentive bill requested by the Governor, allows Kentucky to compete for projects that include a minimum outside investment of $2 billion. This investment will help continue the economic successes of policies implemented by the General Assembly since 2016.

The Governor vetoed and line-item vetoed some bills, but the legislature swiftly and overwhelmingly overrode them. With emergency clauses, they went into effect immediately.

As a legislative body, it is our job to stabilize the system, and this new legislation is an attempt to do so during these unprecedented times. Much work remains ahead of us during the 2022 Regular Session.

In closing, I want to make you aware of a recent announcement from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC): Starting Oct. 1, Kentuckians will have one more way of handling their driver licensing needs from the comfort of their homes. KYTC is creating a permanent Mail-in Renewal Program that follows in the footsteps of the recently launched Online Renewal Program. Both initiatives offer licensing services to Kentuckians outside the walls of KYTC’s regional offices.

The Mail-in Renewal Program, expanding on the successful Circuit Court Clerks’ Mail-in Renewal Program, will be fully administered by the Division of Driver Licensing in Frankfort. Beginning Oct. 1, Kentuckians may submit a Mail-in Renewal application and payment in one of three ways: by mail to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Division of Driver Licensing, 200 Mero St., Frankfort, Ky., 40602; at a KYTC drop box located at the above address; or via email to KYTC.DDLLicenseRenewal@ky.gov. Cash, checks, money orders, debit and credit cards are accepted. Any Kentuckian within six months of his or her credential expiring may renew via mail. Applicants who possess a credential that expired less than a year ago may use the program.

Additionally, KYTC is innovating to continue making the driver’s license more convenient and accessible by partnering with Apple to make state IDs available in Apple Wallet. It can be added similarly to how a credit card is added. You can find more about this at apple.com/newsroom in the September 1, 2021 news release.

Stay safe. God Bless.

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