Before I begin this column, I want to address Friday’s announcement that a Circuit Court Judge voided all the Governor’s COVID-19-related executive orders. While I was supportive of much of what the Governor did to slow the spread in the first few days of this pandemic, I have been pretty outspoken in questioning whether or not the Governor has the authority to take many of the steps he has taken since those days. Frankly, I found them inconsistent and arbitrary. The Governor is part of the Executive Branch, just one of the three branches of our state’s government that must work together as well as hold each other accountable. No branch is more powerful than our constitution, and all must abide by the law. I am deeply concerned that the Governor’s attorneys argued before the judge that there are no limits to the Governor’s power.
While I am sure this ruling will be appealed, I am hopeful that it leads the Governor to work with legislators and other stakeholders to address not only the public health issues, but also the ongoing unemployment insurance debacle, and other needs facing our state. It is also important to recognize that the judge may have voided the orders based on how they were enacted, it is still important to emphasize safety in how we operate our daily lives. My family and I will continue to listen to medical and public health officials and take the steps necessary to keep everyone safe. I also want to stress that, according to testimony during the hearing, public health experts believe that they have all the tools they need to regulate public health and fight COVID-19 without the Governor’s executive orders.
Being a good steward of your tax dollars is, to me, one of the most important tenets of good government. I believe you sent me here to Frankfort to be a guardian of that resource. So, when I see any government entity spending massive amounts of money without input from the legislature, I ask questions. This past week was a busy week that saw not only legislation officially become law, but also many of the Governor’s actions of late fall under the microscope of the legislature’s Government Contract Review Committee.
Last month, the administration spent $225,000 to remove a statue from the Capitol Rotunda.
While the Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis, placed there in 1936, there are many valid questions about the actual removal.
For example, they awarded it without any actual bidding and the company set up the equipment necessary to do the job the day before the Commission gave the go ahead to do so. According to the administration, the state did not have a copy of the company’s workers’ compensation and liability insurance on file when they began work without approval, meaning the state could have been responsible if any workers had been injured. Also, when pressed by committee members, the administration was unable to share why the statue had to be removed immediately rather than go through a competitive bidding process. This contract has been handed over to both the Attorney General and the federal government for investigation.
Another questionable situation that the Government Contract Review committee discussed was the Governor’s refusal to honor the decision of the Fish and Wildlife Commission by offering Fish and Wildlife Resources Commissioner Rich Storm a two-year contract renewal. The Commission has the legal authority to choose the Commissioner and the Storm has done an extraordinary job leading the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, an agency that does not receive any general fund dollars from the General Assembly. Under his leadership, the fund has more than tripled from $9 million to more than $28 million and great strides have been taken to make it more accountable to the hunters, fishermen, and boaters who fund it.
Of course, being good stewards and guardians of your tax dollars also means that we need to pass laws that help Kentucky businesses grow and Kentuckians keep more of their hard-earned money. Our pro-business approach these past few years that we have held the majority in the House and the Senate has led to legislation that has helped get us to where we were before the pandemic. And that same approach to economic development will bring us back to where we need to be. Here are a few of those economic development measures we approved in 2020 that, as of July 15, are now law:
Broadband is essential infrastructure in our digital economy. It is every bit as essential as roads and bridges are to our economic development efforts. We must take a targeted approach to accelerate access to broadband in our state’s most underserved areas, and this bill combines public and private investment to accomplish that goal. It provides funding for construction, development, or improvement of broadband infrastructure, services, or related technologies in underserved or unserved areas of Kentucky. This legislation helps to bring broadband internet to counties that depend on reliable, fast internet for economic development and job growth, yet currently have little to no access.
This bill cleans up language for the Department of Workplace Standards in the Labor Cabinet to clarify that direct sellers — those who sell everything from Avon to Pampered Chef to Norwex — are not employees. This bill eliminates any extra hoops that direct sellers, many of whom are doing these jobs as extra income for their families, might have to go through.
This measure helps to preserve the rights of Kentucky’s hard-working citizens by removing collective bargaining break waivers and preserving agreements made between employers and employees who are represented by a union. It will mandate collective bargaining agreements to be exempt from Kentucky statute as long as the employee receives ten six-minute rest periods for every four hours worked and eliminates any violation of current Kentucky law, which requires a 10-minute break every four hours
This legislation is already receiving national attention as a model for innovation and will benefit our bourbon industry, as well as the micro-breweries, wineries and other producers. It allows alcoholic beverage producers to send products directly to Kentucky consumers. The measure allows licensed producers, both in and out-of-state, to ship directly to Kentuckians and consumers in those other states that permit it. For example, Kentuckians would now be able to receive alcohol from out of state wineries. It will now be easier to make legal purchases, but we included provisions to protect the public. Products can only be shipped to “wet” areas where alcohol is legally allowed. Shipments would require a signature by someone over the age of 21 and must be shipped using a common carrier such as UPS.
This new law passed in the 2020 Regular Session creates the framework for a refunding process for employers who pay into the coal workers’ pneumoconiosis fund once the fund is audited and closed. The Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Funding Commission and the Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance Authority make the determination that final audits are complete, and the liabilities of the coal workers’ pneumoconiosis fund are fully funded prior to the refund of any excess assessments to employers. SB 263 also requires employers to seek a refund to certify if they are in bankruptcy. The refund can only be used to pay workers who have unpaid wages. An employer will not receive a refund if it has an outstanding tax balance or has other unpaid public obligations.
I hope to continue providing you updates through this column. And I will continue to be a good guardian of your tax dollars. As always, I can still be reached through the toll-free message line; if you have any comments or questions, just call 1-800-372-7181 or you can reach me at home at 270- 889-8091. You can also contact me via e-mail at Walker.Thomas@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track of the Kentucky Legislature Home Page at legislature.ky.gov.