GOP lawmakers override vetoes of COVID-19, jobless measures

March 22, 2022 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Republican lawmakers on Monday swept aside Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of a measure revamping rules for Kentucky’s laid-off workers to receive unemployment benefits.

The hotly debated legislation will increase work-search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits and tie the length of time recipients get benefits to the unemployment rate. That could cut the number of benefit weeks by more than half in times of low jobless rates.

It was among two veto overrides Monday as the GOP-dominated legislature flexed its policymaking power as the 2022 session moves into its final days.

Lawmakers also finished pushing through a measure to end Kentucky’s COVID-19 state of emergency a few weeks earlier than previously planned in mid-April. In vetoing the measure, Beshear warned it would cut off extra federal food assistance to struggling Kentuckians.

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“I would admit that this bill is largely a symbol,” Republican Sen. John Schickel said. “But it’s a very important symbol. The symbolism is we’re ready to move forward.”

Opponents branded the measure as a politically motivated, noting that no statewide coronavirus-related restrictions remain in place in the Bluegrass State.

“What is the benefit other than it’s a political shot at the governor?” asked Democratic Sen. David Yates. “What is the benefit? It’s too much to risk here.”

Meanwhile, the veto override of the unemployment bill came over objections from Democrats and some eastern Kentucky Republicans. GOP critics of the bill said it would hurt their constituents struggling to find work in a region where many coalfield and manufacturing jobs have vanished.

Supporters portrayed the measure as an important step toward improving the state’s workforce shortages as businesses struggle to fill jobs as COVID-19 cases recede.

“There are 100,000 vacant jobs in Kentucky right now — across all sectors,” Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said. “Help wanted signs are up everywhere. If you are an able-bodied, healthy Kentuckian, there is no excuse for you to not have a job.”

In his veto message, Beshear condemned the stricter jobless benefit standards as “callous,” warning that the measure would spur more population losses in rural regions with fewer job opportunities.

During the debate Monday, Democratic Sen. Robin Webb called the measure “an insult to rural Kentucky.” GOP Rep. John Blanton implored his colleagues to sustain the veto, saying the proposal’s new standards would hurt his eastern Kentucky district.

Kentucky now offers up to 26 weeks of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Under the bill, people would collect benefits for 12 to 24 weeks, with the length determined by an indexing formula based on unemployment trends. The bill would add five weeks of benefits for people enrolled in approved job training or certification programs.

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In vetoing the measure ending the COVID-related state of emergency a few weeks early, Beshear said it would “take food directly off the tables” of Kentuckians — many of them children or elderly.

The measure would cut their monthly average food stamp benefits by about $100 during a time of rising food prices, Beshear said.

Senate Republicans indicated Monday that governors can seek a one-month extension for the extra food aid beyond the date of the emergency ending. But the governor’s office told lawmakers that a state of emergency declaration is required to receive the emergency food assistance allotments.

As of February, about 544,000 low-income Kentuckians qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Because of the pandemic, the federal government has provided about $50 million more in monthly SNAP benefits to Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Republican Sen. Donald Douglas said 28 other states have ended their COVID-related states of emergency, adding:. “We cannot live under a constant state of emergency.”

Without the extra federal aid, SNAP benefits will return to normal levels, he said.

“Many people make this an emotional issue,” Douglas said. “Let’s ask yourself, should SNAP benefits be a way of life? Now we know it is for some. Should it be a way of life for adults?”

More policy clashes are likely to flare between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers as the 2022 legislative session heads into its final days. Monday was the 52st day of this year’s 60-day session.