We’re heading into our second pandemic winter, with a surge of variant-fueled cases and sadly stagnant vaccine numbers, while state politicians continue to play power-struggle games. During last week’s special session, where the GOP-controlled legislature essentially inherited control of the state’s coronavirus response after a recent Kentucky Supreme Court ruling shifted policymaking power, it became glaringly obvious, very early on, that the emergency lawmaking meeting wasn’t about new ideas. It was about tearing down what Gov. Andy Beshear built. It was about some sort of delusional payback.
On the first day of the special session, Sen. Damon Thayer, the Republican majority floor leader, was one of the many members who made it clear.
“Many of us felt that the governor’s unilateral decisions were made in a non-collaborative fashion with the people’s branch of government, and that businesses and our liberties were arbitrarily impacted,” he said, referencing Beshear’s executive orders at the beginning of the pandemic, before reading from the state Constitution about the power of the various branches of government.
Once you get past the whole “arbitrarily impacted” portion of that sentence — like a deadly virus hasn’t been tearing through the globe — he pretty much just epitomized what the Republican supermajority has been clamoring about for more than a year. Their perspective has basically been reduced to ‘Beshear didn’t consult us last year; now we’re in charge, buckle up for some reactionary and visceral decision making.’
So, the special session was headlined by the GOP’s top goal: They ended statewide mask mandates, a staple in Beshear’s virus response. That includes schools, where student and teacher mask policies will now fall to district leaders. I’m not sure if you’ve seen what a typical school board meeting looks like lately, but it’s something like a family reunion political argument after a case of Wild Turkey, and this is going to enchance the nightmare.
A faction of the party’s wingnuts tried to make it even worse, although their amendments failed, like one that aimed to ban every school district from establishing any sort of mask policy.
The session also encouraged vaccine campaigns and more access to monoclonal antibody treatments and established money for testing supplies. On a school level, passed legislation added 20 remote learning days per district, no matter the size, which have to be used on an individual school or classroom, and money toward a test-to-stay program, which would allow students and teachers who were exposed to the virus at school not have to quarantine if they continue to test negative. The latter has been used in Green County, which has 1,675 students compared Jefferson County’s 101,000, and it’s unclear how it would be scaled up. There was a lot of talk about district-to-district flexibility, but not much of it seems to favor Louisville. It was scattershot, devoid of precise, forward-thinking ideas.
No leader has had a perfect response to the pandemic, because that would have been virtually impossible, but Beshear’s poise and willingness to make tough calls initially put Kentucky in a better spot than a lot of other states. With something as unpredictable as a mutating virus and an economic downturn, the plan had to evolve, but what happened at the special session was more of a symbolic power grab and a middle finger to Beshear than a unified response to an issue that remains incredibly pressing and devastating.
The first sentence of a column in the Lexington Herald Leader said that the session “could have been worse,” which is probably an accurately jaded take about a political mess. But that’s what we settle for — vapid, obstructionist politics that don’t burn the entire house down — because that’s what we’re used to.
Let’s see if the lawmakers can do better, or at least not worse, when they return in January.
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