Al Cross: Republican legislature grabs wheel from Democratic governor; voters will have a say in 2022

When Kentuckians elected Andy Beshear in 2019, they created a recipe for partisan conflict between a legislature with a recent, ultra-Republican majority and a governor from a greatly diminished Democratic Party. In the recently completed legislative session, the governorship itself was diminished.

Legislators took some powers from the governor, gave a few to Republicans who hold other statewide offices, and put on the 2022 ballot a constitutional amendment to let the legislature call itself into session for 12 extra days a year and extend its 30- and 60-day sessions past the current deadlines of March 30 and April 15.

Reacting to Beshear’s anti-pandemic orders, legislators also tried to rein in the governor’s emergency powers. Franklin Circuit Court blocked that legislation, much as the state Supreme Court had rejected legal challenges to the orders. But legislators also reduced the authority of the Frankfort court, allowing constitutional challenges to be filed anywhere in the state, and declared that they could keep citizens from seeing legislative records without being subject to appeal to the court.

More significantly, legislators abolished the governor’s power to reorganize the executive branch between sessions, required him to fill any U.S. Senate vacancy from the party of the departed senator, and gave a legislative committee broad powers to investigate, issue subpoenas and work in secret. Its first target may be the pandemic-caused debacle of delayed unemployment benefits, sure to be an issue when Beshear seeks re-election in 2023.

One of his potential foes, Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, got control of tobacco-settlement money earmarked for agriculture, and of most appointments to the state Fair Board. Treasurer Allison Ball got the power to block personal-service contracts nixed by a legislative committee, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron also got more authority.
Beshear vetoed all these bills and dozens of others, to no avail; it only takes majorities of the House and Senate to override him. The exercise became so routine that the eyes of Frankfort’s depleted press corps seemed to glaze over, but as a whole, the session saw the greatest shift in the legislative-executive balance of power since 1979-80, when the legislature’s then-Democratic majorities asserted their independence from Democratic governors.

As House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy said on KET’s “Kentucky Tonight” Monday, the General Assembly reasserted its role as the chief policy-maker in state government. It was a largely partisan exercise, but there were examples of bipartisanship, such as the bill to expand voting, legalize “instant racing” slot machines, and appropriate federal relief money at the end of the session.

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