Gov. Andy Beshear has vetoed legislation that would end the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency if the General Assembly overrides his veto. Beshear says the resolution would end the $100-a-month pandemic boost in federal food aid, but legislators say that isn’t their intent and that he’s off base.
“Given that we have zero statewide restrictions, and we haven’t for six months, all this does is hurt these folks by cutting off this extra food aid while doing absolutely nothing else,” Beshear said in a video message during which he signed the veto and asked the legislature not to override it, which it could easily do.
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy says the average monthly benefit of $243 in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once called food stamps, would drop by about $100. The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services said that would affect 544,000 Kentuckians.
Senate Joint Resolution 150 says “It is not the intention of the General Assembly that this resolution should impair or delay the ability of the Commonwealth to receive any federal stimulus or pandemic-related funds or services.” But the Beshear administration says a federal law requires “an emergency or disaster declaration by a state based on an outbreak of COVID-19” for the extra benefits.
The legislature has barred Beshear from declaring another COVID-19 emergency without its permission. It is unclear whether he could declare a disaster. Senate President Robert Stivers said late Wednesday that he believes Beshear could meet the requirements by issuing an emergency administrative regulation.
“We have yet to be shown the language that they can’t draw down that with an emergency reg. We have asked for specific language to send to us,” Stivers said. “I believe somebody said he made a comment there were two emails. We do not have any record of any emails being sent to us with this.”
Cabinet spokeswoman Susan Dunlap said the agency advised the chairs of the House and Senate health committee the week of Feb. 28. “COVID continues to impact many families and it is indefensible to take food benefits away from Kentuckians — especially our most vulnerable seniors and children — who already go hungry at a rate higher than the national average,” Dunlap told Austin Horn of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Kentucky Health News asked Dunlap if the administration believes that the new law prohibiting another COVID-19 emergency declaration without the legislature’s approval means that the legislature would have to expressly authorize the declaration of an emergency that would meet the federal requirement.
Dunlap said Beshear asked the legislature to extend his original emergency order “until at least the April 16, 2022, expiration of the HHS public health emergency declaration and until the later date that HHS may extend its declaration. During this legislative session, the governor requested the General Assembly extend the state of emergency until Jan. 15, 2023, and the General Assembly responded by extending it to April 14, 2022.”
Stivers, told that the federal law requires the state to declare an emergency, “Well, we would like to have that discussion with him to see if there aren’t any other avenues. We’ve been able to work on the Ford deal and several other things, but it seems he wants to talk to you all. We’re right here. He knows where we are every day.”
The House passed SJR 150 overwhelmingly on March 10 despite warnings from Democratic legislators about SNAP benefits. “I’m not really interested in continuing to draw federal funds if they’re not deserved or needed,” said Rep. Thomas Huff, R-Shepherdsville, who managed the bill in the House.
Stivers noted Wednesday that Beshear signed the bill ending the emergency in mid-April and said, “If there is no emergency, and he apparently doesn’t believe there is one either, is it appropriate to be requesting emergency funds when there is no emergency? Take all our arguments off the table. When there’s no emergency, why do you request emergency funds? It’s almost fraudulent to do that. The emergency is over.”
Beshear, a Democrat battling with a Republican legislature, said Wednesday, “It comes down to this simple question: do you want our struggling seniors and kids to be able to afford enough food as we navigate out of this pandemic.” He called SJR 150 “a callous act.” Earlier, he called it “politics at its worst.”
The resolution was filed by newly elected Sen. Donald Douglas, R-Nicholasville, who is opposed in the May 17 primary election by Andrew Cooperrider, a leader of protests against pandemic restrictions. He has said the resolution is intended to help Douglas, who was elected in a special election for which party officials chose the nominees and which was held before the legislature redrew its districts.
Stivers said the resolution was intended to tell Beshear, “Show us what you need. We have said file emergency regs if needed. Let us look at them. Tell us what you need in budget language, you know, what are the things [you] need not to discuss through the press? … We are here.”