Budget, unemployment, emergency powers to be focus of 2021 session, area lawmakers say

The upcoming General Assembly will be dominated by two topics — the issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to approve the second half of the state’s two-year budget, Owensboro area legislators said Thursday.

Those two issues, “are going to take most of the air out of the room,” Rep. DJ Johnson said during Thursday’s virtual Rooster Booster Breakfast presented by the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. “They are going to take the most effort.”

The legislators, including Rep. Suzanne Miles, Rep. Scott Lewis, Rep. Jonathan Dixon, Rep. Jim Gooch, Johnson and Sen. Matt Castlen, said passing a budget and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic will be top priorities, but lawmakers will also focus on other issues such as the powers of the governor to keep states of emergency in effect for long periods of time.

“This is going to be a tough session because of the budget,” Gooch, a Providence Republican, said. The odd-year session is scheduled to last just 30 days.

It will be difficult “to do something of that magnitude” in a short session, he said.

Lawmakers passed a two-year budget during this year’s General Assembly but applied the budget to only the 2020-21 fiscal year because the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to estimate the state’s revenue going forward. The Consensus Forecast Group, which does revenue estimates for the General Assembly, is scheduled to give its general fund and road fund revenue estimates on Friday, Dec. 4.

The pandemic put thousands of people out of work, forcing them to apply for unemployment. The state’s unemployment fund was depleted and it borrowed $865 million from the federal government, which has to be paid back.

Gov. Andy Beshear dedicated $200 million in federal CARES Act dollars to repaying part of the loan. Lawmakers said they were concerned that small businesses would have to pay more in unemployment insurance.

“This is, no doubt, the biggest hurdle we are facing,” Castlen said.

The burden of paying for the unemployment crisis shouldn’t fall solely on “the people who are already paying” employees, said Castlen, an Owensboro Republican.

According to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, as of Nov. 30, 75,000 people who had applied for unemployment insurance have outstanding claims and some have been trying to receive unemployment payments since they were put out of work in March.

The number of unpaid claims “has been the biggest debacle during COVID,” said Miles, who is a member of the House’s GOP majority leadership. She said the state’s unemployment system “never planned for a pandemic.”

Legislators will examine “what has gone right (and) what has gone wrong” with the unemployment insurance system, Miles said, adding that legislators want to assist people out of work as well as business owners.

“The concern of the business owners is they don’t want their rates to double down, or raise,” said Dixon, a business owner. He said he has heard “story after story after story” of people who have been unable to get unemployment benefits.

Gooch said “everyone is going to have to pay” to fix the unemployment system. “We have to make sure we understand that we can’t just put this all on small business.”

“We need to do something this session to try to help our employers and employees,” Lewis, a Hartford Republican, said, although he didn’t know the solution.

Lewis, who owns a restaurant in Ohio County, said the state’s order for restaurants to go to carry out or delivery only will hurt those businesses.

“We are trying to stay open so our employees can have a Christmas,” Lewis said.

The governor’s ability to call a prolonged state of emergency will be examined in the coming session. Castlen and Gooch said they have filed bills that would limit the length of time a governor could have a state of emergency in effect without legislative approval.

“The legislators should be involved because we are the people’s branch of government,” Gooch said.

When asked their thoughts on raising the state’s gas tax as a way to pay for road infrastructure improvements, Johnson said the gas tax formula was created when gasoline was $3 or more per gallon. Gasoline prices are much lower, he said, and the state is collecting less gas tax revenue because the pandemic has reduced travel.

Of the possibility of raising the gas tax in the coming session, Johnson said, “It’s hard to say we are going to raise any kind of taxes, or put an additional burden on people when they are just trying to make house payments.”

Miles said she had previously sponsored a bill that would have put a fee on electric vehicles.

“I’m definitely in favor of people who are using the roads are paying for the roads,” she said.

Lawmakers were asked about additional funding for higher education. All said they supported education and work skills training, like programs offered through community colleges and partnerships between colleges and the private sector.

Colleges and universities also need to work with the funding they have, Miles said. “We need to make sure we are investing it in the right way.”

Lewis, a former Ohio County Schools superintendent, noted a teacher shortage that lawmakers will have to address at some point.

On education spending, Lewis said, “Moving forward, we do need to make sure we are getting our bang for our buck.”

Lawmakers can’t reduce funding to colleges and universities, Lewis said, but, “we have to make sure our dollars are being used wisely.”

Johnson said while colleges and universities likely won’t get across-the-board funding increases, those with innovative programs will be funded.

“When an institution … identifies a way they can effectively use those dollars, we will find the dollars for them,” he said.

By: James Mayse Messenger-Inquirer