WATERS: Impeach or legislate?

Published 3:10 pm Monday, January 4, 2021

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When Amber, my server at a central Kentucky restaurant where I stopped to work and get some breakfast recently, saw my computer open to the petition on change.org labeled in big, bold letters: “The Impeachment of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear,” she immediately asked: “Are they going to impeach the governor?”

I explained that it was a petition started by citizens frustrated with Beshear’s flood of executive orders locking down the state, including two stretches of prohibiting indoor dining and shutting down both bars and churches while allowing big box retailers, grocery stores, liquor establishments and even abortion clinics to remain open.

I had the petition open to read its wording, which particularly takes aim at Beshear for “infringing on the rights of churchgoers” and says the governor “should be charged with malfeasance for his actions,” and to see how many had signed – 34,991 toward the goal of 35,000 signatures as of New Year’s Eve day.

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At least one more signature was recorded after Amber got off work.

“I’m definitely signing,” she said.

While I wasn’t campaigning for signatures and don’t believe there’s any realistic expectation the governor will be impeached for his response to the COVID-19 pandemic or that lawmakers should be focused on removing him, Amber’s response revealed frustration among the citizenry at Beshear’s heavy — and inconsistent — hand.

The governor’s never offered a reasonable explanation for why people should be able to pile into a Walmart at Christmas time while Amber and many others like her have had their livelihoods upended with the shutdown of indoor dining at restaurants.

While Amber’s neither an expert on Kentucky’s Constitution nor a close follower of Frankfort’s legislative happenings, her sentiment that “something’s got to be done” is spot on.

The Kentucky Supreme Court has offered no help in limiting or even defining the scope of Beshear’s use of emergency executive orders beyond a “he can do whatever he wants” approach.

That’s in contrast with the Michigan Supreme Court, which reined in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s power by ruling that the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act – a 1945 law she relied on to extend Michigan’s state of emergency without lawmakers’ approval – violates the state constitution and gives the governor an unlawful amount of legislative power.

So, it’s left to the legislature to act — at least in Kentucky.

An impeachment process would provide a short-term appeasement of the anger felt by many Kentuckians deeply impacted by the chaos resulting from Beshear’s orders, but it would do little to limit the actions of future governors.

Instead, the legislature should focus its energies on passing or amending laws curbing the use of emergency powers in the future by the office of the governor — whomever the occupant -— rather than simply focusing on the current executive.

Lawmakers must also do all they can to force governors to include them in the process of decision-making regarding dramatic events like this pandemic.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, who’s filed legislation to limit governors’ emergency powers, told me in a Dec. 30 interview on Lexington’s WVLK that “never again should the citizens of the commonwealth be left without a voice in a situation of this magnitude.”

In a post containing the interview on Maddox’s Facebook page, Gwendolyn Joy captured the sentiment of those frustrated by Beshear but who understand the need for a longer-term solution: “Impeachment would be great, but tying his hands behind [his] back and putting a gag on him and letting him sit there 3 more years with no power might be just as enjoyable. Get the power back in the hands of the people!”

We could do worse.

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.