SB 5 would offer COVID liability protection

BY SEN. RALPH ALVARADO

March has finally arrived, and I hope everyone is warming up and drying out.

I want to speak about recent severe weather events. The governor declared a state of emergency concerning flash flooding, affecting communities from far southwestern to far southeastern Kentucky. Last week’s declaration comes only a week shy of a year since the governor declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Both figuratively and literally, it seems we continue to be hit by storms.

The pandemic has threatened the elderly and immunocompromised as well as contributed to an unemployment crisis. Severe winter weather covered our commonwealth in ice and left our people without power. Most recently, torrential rain has caused flooding of homes and businesses. Several counties received over six inches of rainfall. Many counties stretching across Kentucky received between 4 ½ to 5 ½ inches of rain. It was indeed a “perfect storm” as we received record levels of rain on top of melting ice.

The Kentucky National Guard has been activated to assist, and assessments will eventually be conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you have been personally impacted, please look for updates on assistance opportunities by visiting fema.gov/locations/kentucky. Persons living in counties declared eligible for individual assistance programs under a major presidential disaster declaration may register for assistance by visiting that site or calling 1-800-621-3362. In case of an emergency, always call 9-1-1.

Kentucky Emergency Management (KYEM) and local emergency management personnel have worked hard alongside other heroes. Visit kyem.ky.gov for state updates or contact that state office by phone at 1-800-255-2587. For Clark and Fayette Counties, the regional KYEM operation center office can be reached by phone at 502-607-2461, 502-607-2462, or 502-330-4153.  For Montgomery County, the regional office can be reached at 502-607-3325, 502-607-3326, or 606-356-1888. Additionally, each county has a local emergency management office.

I pray for the safety and well-being of all who have been impacted by recent weather.

A Senate chamber report includes passage of yet another Senate priority bill, Senate Bill (SB) 5. I was proud to be a co-sponsor of this bill. Among numerous other measures, it is a bill that works to mitigate the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Kentucky’s economy. In this case, notably to support and reassure our society’s sectors trying to reopen or continue operation.

If it becomes law, SB 5 would provide liability protections for premises owners or leaseholders, including places of worship, schools, restaurants, medical facilities, and more. It also establishes essential services protections to businesses in the food supply chain, manufacturers, distributors of personal protective equipment, child care service providers, and others. The measure, however, would not protect entities that act in a malicious or grossly negligent way to ignore safety orders during a state of emergency.

SB 53 allows part-time adjunct instructors for the Kentucky Fire Commission to begin drawing benefits from the County Employees Retirement System without having to resign from that position, so long as the instructor has not previously participated in the Kentucky Employees Retirement System.

SB 101 provides that when a local board of education assumes management of a state-operated vocational education & technology center, the center shall receive 100 percent of its funding as a state-operated center in the first year and 75 percent of the funding it received after that. It requires that 25 percent must be distributed to locally operated centers that did not receive state supplemental funds previously. The bill also mandates the retention of ATC personnel to protect them.

SB 105 establishes guidelines for filing and serving a petition for the appointment of a person responsible for the possession, repair, and preservation of an abandoned and unsafe property. The bill outlines the procedure for hearing a petition, defines the powers and duties of a conservator, and puts in place standards for the termination of a conservatorship.

SB 122 would prohibit a state contract from being awarded to a business if it was already awarded the same or similar contract if it was awarded through an executive agency lobbyist who was convicted of a crime related to contracts. It also prohibits a person associated with an agency from participating in a contract procurement for one year after termination.

SB 128 provides any student enrolled in a Kentucky public school in grades K-12 during the 2020-21 school year the opportunity to request to participate in a temporary program during the 2021-22 school year to retake or supplement the courses or grades the student has already taken. The ultimate decision of providing this opportunity will be left to local school districts, which must decide to accept all student’s requests or none at all.

The past year has been tough on so many, but Kentucky students have significantly been negatively impacted. A recent report from the Lexington Herald-Leader shows failing grades have skyrocketed. The good news is that most school districts have returned to some form of in-person learning, but the school year is almost over now. For the most part, all of the 2020-21 school year has remained virtual, and while districts, teachers and parents or other guardians have done their best, distance learning has been inadequate for many of our kids. Some children may not have the support they need at home. Our rural communities with broadband issues have proven to be a challenge for families. Quite simply, our students have missed their teachers, friends, and vital emotional and social experiences they deserve. SB 128 will provide local school districts with the ability to do right by students and families determining it is in their best interest to take advantage of a supplemental year of education. It will ensure participating seniors’ preparedness for whatever their next chapter in life is, and all students the peace of mind knowing the pandemic will not cause them to be left behind.

SB 172 requires persons who damage underground utility facilities, such as pipelines and telecommunications lines during demolition or excavation, to cease activity and notify the underground facility operator.

SB 181 is a companion bill to House Bill (HB) 4, a bill that made final passage this week. HB 4 is a constitutional amendment bill, so it does not require the governor’s signature. Instead, it will go before you, the voters, on the next general election ballot. If supported by a majority of voters, HB 4 would provide the General Assembly with the ability to call itself back into session. SB 181 would establish the Senate president’s and House speaker’s power to reconvene the General Assembly for up to twelve additional legislative days via joint proclamation. Additionally, it would allow for any bills filed by the deadline of the close of a regular session to survive until Dec. 31 of that same year.

SB 212, also known as the “Kara Beth Adair Wilson Act,” requires the various Kentucky retirement systems to develop an electronic method to which future changes to beneficiary designations for all members and new member forms, including beneficiary designation forms, must be submitted.

SB 228 would reform how a U.S. senator of Kentucky is replaced should a vacancy occur. The bill would establish that the departing senator’s state party would nominate three people from which the governor would select. That individual would serve out the remainder of the term. Additionally, it sets stipulations about how long a replacement can serve before voters get to elect someone to take over that seat and establishes provisions about how such elections should be held.

I had the pleasure of carrying HB 50 in the state Senate for primary sponsor and Health & Welfare counterpart in the state House, Kimberly Moser. It provides that health insurance plans offered in Kentucky comply with a federal law designed to ensure the equal treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders by strengthening Kentucky’s implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. That means health plans’ co-payments, deductibles, and limits on visits to health care providers are not more restrictive or less generous for mental health benefits than for medical and surgical benefits.

HB 7, a House priority bill, made final passage in the General Assembly and headed to the governor’s desk for consideration.  I want to bring attention to HB 7. It establishes a Recovery Ready Communities council and program for cities and counties that want to demonstrate their addiction recovery commitment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 83,000 people died in the 12 months ending in July 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened addiction. The state has worked hard over the years to combat the scourge of drug addiction. Although the challenge is difficult, we must continue efforts to address the abuse of opioids and other narcotics. HB 7 is one more step in saving lives.

Another bill reaching the governor’s desk for signature was HB 208. The bill’s primary purpose was to extend past the March 4 expiration date through the end of the 2020-21 school year, a local school district’s funding flexibility to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. Constituents shared several concerns they saw with the House’s version of the bill. I am happy to say these very concerns were addressed in the Senate’s revision of the bill.

We removed districts’ ability to apply for more non-traditional instruction (NTI) days based on county COVID-19 case rate above the arbitrarily sets 25 per 100,000 population is considered critical in Kentucky. That is not in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which consider >100 per 100,000 population as high community transmission and, more specifically, >200 cases per 100,000 population as the highest risk of transmission in schools. Additionally, the Senate changes require districts to get students back in school at least four days in-person on an A/B schedule by March 29 for the remainder of the school year. If that requirement is not met, school districts will lose access to flexible funding for hybrid schedules and the additional five NTI days.

To be clear, for the next school year, 2021-2022, everything must be back to normal.  NTI days will be limited to the statutory 10 days, and no hybrid learning will be allowed in the absence of an executive order.

It is worth noting that under SB 1 passed by the General Assembly — which the governor has challenged — any such order suspending statutes related to school funding or allowing hybrid or virtual learning would have to be agreed to by the Kentucky attorney general. Even then, it would expire in 30 days without legislative approval at that time. It is time to get our kids back in the safe and conducive learning environment of a school. HB 208 with the Senate’s cleanup measures gets them there.

Speaking of SB 1, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled to block its implementation and HB 1 and SB 2 temporarily. He had previously issued a temporary injunction on only HB 1. Judge Shepherd is the same judge who was removed from a case in 2019 involving then-Attorney General Andy Beshear. Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton Jr. stated at that time that the Kentucky Judicial Code of Conduct required disqualification “in circumstances where the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The case of the governor’s challenge to SB 1, 2, and HB 1 will likely head to the Kentucky Supreme Court now upon appeal. You can find details on these bills in my previous legislative updates or by visiting legislature.ky.gov.

I want to bring your attention to one of the most worthwhile endeavors I have ever participated in, and that is honor flights for Kentucky veterans. Honor flights serve to bring veterans to Washington D.C. to tour the memorials dedicated in appreciation of their service. It is an incredibly moving experience not just for veterans but also for anyone blessed enough to witness their experience. The Honor Flight Network provides this honor to our veterans at no cost to them. This past week, the Senate passed a resolution I introduced, Senate Resolution 94, recognizing the Honor Flight Network for their efforts.

I have the great honor of serving as the medical director for one of the programs, Honor Flight Kentucky. I get to care for veterans who participate in honor flights. Another program is Honor Flight Bluegrass, based out of Louisville. I want to encourage you to support and even participate as a guardian or join for a sendoff or welcome back of an honor flight. You can find information on how you can support or participate by visiting honorflightbluegrass.org and honorflightky.org. You will not regret being involved.

In closing, I was proud to host Congressman Andy Barr on the floor of the Senate. I was also honored to present Senate Resolution 25 commemorating his wife, Carol, after her sudden passing in June 2020. Also recognized was Congressman Barr’s work on the CAROL Act to identify individuals with valvular heart disease and develop prediction models for high-risk patients and enable interventions and treatments. It was this heart disease that took Carol from us unexpectedly. Please join me in continued prayer for the Barr family, especially Congressman Barr and Carol’s daughters.

The end of the 30-day session draws near. Please feel free to call me about these issues or any other public policy issue toll-free at 1-800-372-7181 or email me at Ralph.Alvarado@LRC.ky.gov. Be safe. God bless.