The period between sessions of the General Assembly is called the interim and during that time committee meetings are held to discuss issues that may come up in the next session and to review action that took place during the previous session. These interim committee meetings consist of members of both Republicans and Democrats of both the House and the Senate.
Two such interim committee meetings were the Budget Review Subcommittee on Economic Development, Tourism, & Environmental Protection and Program Review. I chaired the Budget Review meeting and co-chaired the Program Review meeting. Both meetings focused on aspects and repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Testimony was given by various members of the Executive Branch, the President and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, and a number of owners of licensed Child Day Care Centers.
Following is a summary of testimony and discussion during those two committee meetings.
Sadly, what became abundantly clear during the Executive Branch presentations and answers to questions is that there is little data supporting the decisions that have been made.
Secretary Mary Noble of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet was not able to provide an accurate view of the cabinet’s expenses as a result of the pandemic. Commissioner Cookie Crews, Department of Corrections, stated that she did not have the exact number of state inmates that had been released from county jails because of commutations but she wasn’t aware of any inmates who had been released on conditional commutation and then rearrested. Secretary Noble stated that the Green River Correctional Complex was the only state correctional institution to have had a COVID-19 outbreak, but indicated that fortunately only one inmate and “very few” Correctional Officers in any of the state’s other facilities had tested positive for COVID-19.
Rodney Brewer, Commissioner, Kentucky State Police, said that in an effort to prevent violence and vandalism in Louisville, beginning on the evening of Friday, May 29, Kentucky State Police placed between 90 and 100 troopers in Louisville to assist the Louisville Metro Police Department during protests and rioting. He noted that KSP presence in Louisville usually began around 4:00PM and continued until 1:00 — 3:00 AM. He said that KSP is providing investigators and oversight in the investigation of a fatal shooting that occurred early in the morning of Monday, June 1 during the rioting.
Commissioner Brewer said that there had been no arrests during protests on the Capitol campus, but KSP was investigating an incident where tires were flattened on a protester’s vehicle. There were, however, some arrests made for threats against the Governor, but those did not take place during protests. In addition, the Commissioner said that during protests on the Capitol grounds, KSP places officers in an over watch position which is an elevated location either on top of the Capitol or the Capitol Annex, but those officers are not equipped with sniper gear. On another subject, Commissioner Brewer stated that he did not have data readily available on which counties KSP “visited” Easter weekend for reports of noncompliance with social distancing measures.
Wendy Morris, Commissioner Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities stated that although suicide reporting data typically has some lag time, the data that the Department has seen so far does not indicate an increase in suicide rates in Kentucky during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that a recent spike in overdose deaths is about the same as some overdose death spikes that have occurred in the past. Commissioner Morris did state though that she was not consulted concerning prisoner commutations, but that her team worked with the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to ensure those who were released would have access to drug treatment.
Operators of Child Day Care Centers noted that they had been closed for three months while the day care center at the Toyota plant was allowed to operate and YMCAs were allowed to provide day care. Now, when the licensed centers were allowed to reopen, new regulations limiting the ratio of workers to children or number of children allowed in a day care setting were handed down a week before they were being allowed to reopen.
They also pointed out that there were only five states that closed Child day Care Centers at all. Looking at some surrounding states, neither Indiana nor Tennessee closed at all. Ohio closed its Child Day Care Centers but reopened them on May 31.
The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce surveyed Child Day Care Centers and found that 42% indicated they will not reopen. The permanent closure of 42% of these centers effects 56,000 children and the attendant negative financial burden on parents who will be unable to return to work because of the lack of proper day care of their children
Eric Friedlander, Secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, could not provide any data supporting the need for the new regulations. When questioned about other restrictions and their continuation, he spent most of the time articulating what might happen, rather than providing details on what has actually happened in areas without those restrictions.
He did say that regardless of a person’s underlying condition, any person who died with COVID-19 was listed as a COVID-19 death. Thus, if a person was in hospice for cancer but was found to also have contracted COVID-19, that person upon death was counted as a COVID-19 related death as reported by the Governor in his daily briefing. There doesn’t seem to be any distinction between a person dying from COVID-19 or a person dying with COVID-19.
On a non-committee meeting note, I have pre-filed a bill for the next session of the General Assembly limiting the Governor’s state of emergency powers to 28 days unless a majority of both the House and Senate approves their continuation. Because of the length of time the Governor’s declared State of Emergency has lasted and because of a single person having total control of what can and cannot be done, a change is needed. My belief is that the people elected to represent the citizens of the Commonwealth should be involved when circumstances appear to warrant a state of emergency.
Lynn Bechler is the Kentucky State Representative representing District 4.