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Kentucky lawmakers convene amid COVID-19 challenges

FRANKFORT – Kentucky’s legislature convened Tuesday, promoting legislation to scale back the governor’s emergency powers and give the state’s anti-abortion attorney general new authority to regulate abortion clinics.

Kentucky lawmakers opened their 2021 session with safeguards in place as the COVID-19 pandemic poses a public health threat.

The agenda will likely be dominated by budget and pandemic-related issues. Republicans bolstered their legislative supermajorities in last year’s elections, giving them the numbers to override any vetoes from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

On the opening day, House and Senate Republicans touted bills to rein in the governor’s executive powers in times of emergencies. One measure would limit executive orders to 30 days unless extended by lawmakers. Another bill would allow Kentucky businesses to stay open if their COVID responses meet or exceed federal health guidelines.

“We will not repeat having one person in total control for the amount of time without input from the people’s branch of government,” Republican Sen. Matt Castlen said.

During the COVID crisis, Beshear has wielded his executive authority to put restrictions on businesses and the size of gatherings, which some GOP lawmakers and others have branded as an abuse of power.

Beshear credits his actions with saving lives, noting that some GOP-led states with more lax responses have been hit much harder by the virus. Kentucky’s neighbor to the south, Tennessee, has among the highest per-capita case rates in the country.

Beshear criticized the bills to limit his executive authority but said his focus Tuesday was on the coronavirus vaccine rollout and his budget preparations.

House Speaker David Osborne promised an “aggressive agenda” from the outset to overcome time limitations for lawmakers. That includes an accelerated pace in crafting the budget, he said.

“We will hit the ground running,” he said Monday on Kentucky Educational Television. “We will have committee meetings immediately and begin working on legislation right away.”

Lawmakers followed through Tuesday.

A House committee advanced the bill to give Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron greater authority to regulate abortion clinics.

Beshear vetoed that proposal last year when it was included in a larger abortion bill that passed shortly before the legislative session ended, which prevented lawmakers from overriding the veto. Kentucky lawmakers have moved aggressively in recent years to put restrictions on abortions.

Topping the agenda for the 30-day session will be passing another one-year state budget. Last year, lawmakers approved a slimmed-down, one-year budget – rather than the traditional two-year spending plan – after the coronavirus outbreak created financial uncertainty.

Beshear will unveil his spending proposals and other priorities Wednesday evening in his State of the Commonwealth address. It will be delivered virtually because of the pandemic.

As in the latter stages of the 2020 session, lawmakers again face the challenge of conducting business amid the threat from COVID-19.

Lawmakers wore masks in the House and Senate chambers as they began the new session. They are required to wear them in the chambers and in other public settings at the Capitol complex, the top House and Senate Republican leaders said.

Senate President Robert Stivers urged compliance to protect people at greater risk from the virus. “We will do the best we can to encourage it and police it,” he said.

House members will be allowed to vote remotely from their statehouse offices to help keep people spread out in a chamber that, in normal times, is crammed with 100 members, along with staff.

“I think putting 100 people in that room, masks or not, is an iffy situation,” House Minority Floor Leader Joni Jenkins said.

Committee meetings will be limited to one hour, half the usual time set aside, to allow more time for sanitizing rooms between meetings, Republican leaders said. Lawmakers will be allowed to participate remotely at committee hearings.

Virus-related precautions will result in a slower process and fewer bills being considered this session, Stivers said.

“We’ve told our caucus, don’t expect a lot of things to move,” he said.

Another likely COVID-related priority for GOP lawmakers is an effort to shield businesses from lawsuits if they followed virus protocols.

A proposal to ban most no-knock search warrants is also expected to be considered. It stems from the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed during a police raid last March at her Louisville apartment. Lawmakers could take up other bills dealing with criminal justice, public pensions, medical marijuana and the legal status of historical racing games offered by some horse tracks.

Improvements made at Mammoth Cave’s Green River sites

Several construction projects at Mammoth Cave National Park’s Green River Ferry have either been finished or are reaching completion.

The ferry resumed vehicle shuttle operations Sunday.

The ferry service had been closed since September to complete a vehicle ramp project to extend the access ramp by 30 feet into the Green River.

The ferry will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. but will be closed daily between 1:45 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. for cleaning and disinfection of the operating booth between shifts.

“The Green River Ferry is used by visitors every year, and we have to shut it down whenever water levels are really low,” Mammoth Cave National Park Public Information Officer Molly Schroer said. “We were experiencing more closures and shutdowns due to the low levels. These extensions and reconfiguring of the ferry made it possible to cross now.”

The project contractor, Kovilic Construction Co., took advantage of lower than average water levels that allowed it to reach the lowest sections of the ramp.

Additional paving on the south ramp and coffer dam removal on the north ramp is still needed, though, so short-term closures can be expected in the spring and summer this year.

The ramp extension project was coordinated by Federal Highway Administration Eastern Lands Highway Division with assistance from the park.

Work to install a new canoe and kayak access ramp at the Green River Ferry area has been suspended until late spring due to high water, but river access at both Green River Ferry and Dennison Ferry, 7.6 miles upstream from Green River Ferry, reopened Sunday.

River users are permitted to use the Green River Ferry’s vehicle access ramp to reach the river until the canoe and kayak ramp is completed in mid-2021.

Much of the project is finished, but the contractor still needs to complete work on the lower railing system. This work is expected to occur when water levels drop in late spring.

“Up until this point, the only access point for canoes and kayaks was just the one ramp,” Schroer said. “It caused great congestion in the summertime. People will be able to use that new ramp for those specific activities”

Boaters and paddlers should be aware that winter often brings high, fast-moving water in the Green River and are advised to be familiar with the park’s river safety and regulations.

The first half of the Echo River Springs accessible trail is currently open to the public, and the installation of the pedestrian bridge over the Echo River will be completed Jan. 12-13.

The installation will include a temporary closure of the Green River Ferry Road and Green River Ferry Service from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The new pedestrian bridge will span about 200 feet over the Echo River and will create an accessible loop trail that leads directly back to the Green River Ferry parking area.

As part of the trail project, the existing accessible trail has been extended an additional 0.3 miles.

Portions of the Echo River Springs Trail were rehabilitated in 2018 to improve accessibility and add tactile wayside interpretation stops along the route.

“The loop trail for the public will create a better experience the woods,” Schroer said. “Even throughout 2020, we saw a lot of people using our rivers and trails. The more we can provide people with opportunities to see the surface, the more they will be able to appreciate the park as whole.”

– Follow reporter John Reecer on Twitter @JReecerBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

EPB board chair found in contempt for sharing email

GLASGOW – The chairman of the Glasgow Electric Plant Board’s board of directors, D.T. Froedge, has been found to be in contempt of court for violating the confidentiality provision of a mediation agreement.

The EPB board of directors took part in a court-ordered mediation Oct. 20 at the utility company’s office on Mallory Drive.

The purpose of the mediation was for the EPB’s board of directors to try to resolve its differences. All participants in the mediation signed a confidentiality agreement before the discussions.

A court hearing regarding the alleged violation of the confidentiality provision of the mediation took place Dec. 11. During that hearing, Froedge “ ... acknowledged he had forwarded an email concerning confidential mediation negotiations to his spouse,” according to a ruling by Barren Circuit Court Judge John Alexander.

The email contained the terms of a settlement offer in an ongoing civil lawsuit between Froedge and the board of directors. The email was then posted by Froedge’s wife on a Facebook page of a group characterized by Froedge during the court hearing as “a group of citizens interested in reforming the Electric Plant Board,” the ruling said.

The court has ordered the mediation to resume with the same mediator under the same terms and conditions established for the first mediation attempt. The court order also said all participants are to take part in “... good faith and in an earnest attempt to resolve their differences.”

As a result of Froedge being found in contempt, the court ordered him to pay the costs of the resumed mediation, including the mediator’s fee.

When asked how he felt about the ruling, Froedge said: “I really shouldn’t get into that. It’s just what happens. The judge feels we didn’t mediate in good faith. Letting my wife have a copy of it, which she posted on the internet after the mediation was over, was an act of bad faith.”

It was not the Facebook post that violated the court order, but rather the disclosure of the confidential material to a third party that violated the terms of the mediation agreement, the judge ruled.

Mediation efforts continued after Oct. 20 with attorney Paul Lawless, who represented Froedge, testifying at the Dec. 11 court hearing that he still thought an agreement might be reached.

Alexander wrote in his ruling that “it was (and remains) the Court’s intention to have the parties engage in a legitimate, good faith mediation with an eye towards resolving the issues for the citizens of Glasgow, Barren County, and the surrounding communities.”

A date for the mediation to resume has not been set.

New city commission OKs Speedway rezoning

Bowling Green’s new city commission Tuesday approved a contested rezoning allowing for the expansion of a Speedway gas station at Covington and Broadway after the company made changes to its plan.

The rezoning first came up for a vote in November and failed to pass on a first reading after a 2-2 vote from the city commission.

Then-Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash was absent from the teleconferenced meeting, and Joe Denning joined Dana Beasley Brown in voting against the rezoning. Sue Parrigin and then-Mayor Bruce Wilkerson voted yes.

A second reading of the rezoning request was tabled for the commission’s December meeting, meaning the new city commission would have the final say.

Attorney David Broderick, representing Speedway, said the company has worked to address some of the concerns of area residents who have spoken against the project, citing concerns about traffic and the encroachment of commercial property into an established neighborhood.

The changes to the development plan include requiring that a 6-foot wooden privacy fence and a 40-foot buffer be built between the gas station and the homes adjoining the property. Entrance and exits from the property have also been adjusted to address concerns about congestion.

Speedway “tried to accommodate everyone,” Broderick said.

Brown said she remains concerned about preserving the city’s neighborhoods, but she was glad planners “found a way forward to protect the neighborhood.”

She switched her vote to yes, joining Parrigin, new Mayor Todd Alcott and new Commissioners Carlos Bailey and Melinda Hill in giving final approval to the rezoning request.

Ohio-based Speedway LLC is planning to expand its convenience store and gas station at 1220 Broadway Ave. with a 4,600-square-foot convenience store and 4,700-square-foot fueling canopy.

The company purchased the adjoining Danny Barron’s Auto Sales property at 1218 Broadway and residential lot at 1117 Covington St.

The house there was demolished for the project. The application presented by Speedway includes combining the 1218 and 1220 Broadway lots and the Covington lot into one 1.45-acre lot and rezoning it from general business and residential to highway business.

Commissioners met for the first time since last spring in person Tuesday at City Hall, although attendance was restricted and several participants took part via teleconference.

Hill has previously served on the commission, while Alcott and Bailey were participating in their first city commission meeting since being elected in November.

– Follow Managing Editor Wes Swietek on Twitter @WesSwietek or visit bgdailynews.com.

Georgia tallies votes as US Senate control hangs in balance

ATLANTA – Georgia officials began counting the final votes of the 2020 election season Tuesday night as polls closed in two critical races that will determine control of the U.S. Senate and, in turn, the fate of President-elect Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

The two Senate runoff elections are leftovers from the November election, when none of the candidates hit the 50% threshold. Democrats need to win both races to seize the Senate majority – and, with it, control of the new Congress.

President Donald Trump encouraged his loyalists to turn out in force even as he pressed claims of voter fraud to explain his loss in Georgia.

Late Tuesday night, the Senate races were too early to call.

Both Democrats had a small lead in votes counted, but much of that vote came from ballots cast before Election Day, which generally favor Democratic candidates. That left room for the Republicans to catch up as more votes cast on Election Day, which tend to favor the GOP, were added to the count.

In one contest, Republican Kelly Loeffler, a former businesswoman who was appointed to the Senate less than a year ago by the state’s governor, faced Democrat Raphael Warnock, who serves as senior pastor of the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and preached.

The other election pitted former business executive David Perdue, a Republican who held his Senate seat until his term expired Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, a former congressional aide and journalist.

This week’s elections mark the formal finale to the 2020 election season more than two months after the rest of the nation finished voting. The heightened significance of the runoffs transformed Georgia, once a solidly Republican state, into one of the nation’s premier battlegrounds during the final days of Trump’s presidency.

Biden and Trump campaigned for their candidates in person on the eve of the election. The president has assailed Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, for rejecting his fraud contentions and raised the prospect that some ballots might not be counted even as votes were being cast Tuesday afternoon.

State officials said there were no major problems with voting Tuesday.

Trump’s claims about voter fraud in the 2020 election have resonated with Republican voters in Georgia. About seven in 10 agree with his assertion that Biden was not the legitimately elected president, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 3,600 voters in the runoff elections.

Even with Trump’s claims, voters in both parties were drawn to the polls because of the high stakes. AP VoteCast found that six in 10 Georgia voters say Senate party control was the most important factor in their vote.

In Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, Kari Callaghan said she voted “all Democrat” on Tuesday. But Will James said he voted straight GOP.

He said he was concerned by the Republican candidates’ recent support of Trump’s challenges of the presidential election results in Georgia, “but it didn’t really change the reasons I voted.”

“I believe in balance of power, and I don’t want either party to have a referendum, basically,” he said.

Democrats counted on driving a huge turnout of African Americans, young voters, college-educated Georgians and women, all groups that helped Biden win the state. Republicans, meanwhile, have been focused on energizing their own base of white men and voters beyond the core of metro Atlanta.

If Republicans win either seat, Biden would be the first incoming president in more than a century to enter the Oval Office facing a divided Congress. In that case, he would have little shot for swift votes on his most ambitious plans to expand government-backed health care coverage and combat climate change.