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Kentucky governor signs bipartisan early voting measure

FRANKFORT – Gov. Andy Beshear signed legislation Wednesday expanding early voting in Kentucky, a rare display of bipartisan cooperation at a time of national conflict over election measures.

The Democratic governor called it “a good day for democracy.” The bill’s GOP sponsors and Republican Secretary of State Michael Adams joined him at the signing ceremony.

“This new law represents an important first step to preserve and protect every individual’s right to make their voice heard by casting their ballots in a secure and convenient manner on the date and time that works best for them,” Beshear said.

Adams said it represents Kentucky’s most significant election law updates in more than a century.

The measure provides for three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting – including a Saturday – before Election Day. It also allows counties to establish voting centers where any registered voter in each county can cast their ballot, regardless of their precinct.

These provisions relax the state’s pre-pandemic voting laws. Before the coronavirus hit, Kentucky prohibited early voting by mail or in person unless a person couldn’t vote on Election Day because of advanced age, illness, severe disability or temporarily residing out of the county or state.

But the new law backs off from Kentucky’s temporary, pandemic-related accommodations, which allowed widespread mail-in absentee balloting and seemed to minimize the long lines and confusion seen in some states during last year’s elections.

The Kentucky measure also aims to strengthen election security protections.

“While other states are caught up in partisan division, here in Kentucky we’re leading the nation in making it both easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Adams said.

Republican state legislators across the country have pushed for new voting rules while seizing on former President Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud. Many Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping the U.S. Senate will pass legislation standardizing voter protections nationwide.

The tension is most evident in Georgia, where a new voting law pushed through by Republicans has drawn intense national scrutiny, prompting belated criticism from such corporate giants as Delta and Coca-Cola.

But in Kentucky, where Trump remains popular, the tone among lawmakers was mild as the bill moved through the GOP-dominated legislature. It was a departure from the bare-knuckled partisan fights Kentucky has been accustomed to on other hot-button issues.

“While some states have stepped in a different direction, I’m really proud of Kentucky,” Beshear said.

The new Kentucky law maintains an online portal for residents to request a mail-in ballot but restores pre-pandemic restrictions on who can vote by mail. Regarding election security, it will lead to a statewide transition toward universal paper ballots to guarantee a paper audit trail. It enhances the ability of state election officials to remove nonresidents from voter rolls. And it expressly prohibits and penalizes ballot harvesting, the practice of collecting ballots from likely supporters and returning them to election offices.

The new law echoes the tone set last year by Beshear and Adams, who hashed out emergency voting measures during the pandemic that helped Kentucky largely avoid the long lines and other problems encountered elsewhere.

Guthrie touts bipartisan vaccine success in local stop

In today’s partisan political environment, U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, believes he has found a bipartisan success story in the country’s rollout of vaccines against COVID-19.

Guthrie, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s health subcommittee, was in Bowling Green on Wednesday to tout that story and encourage people to be vaccinated against a disease that has afflicted the world for more than a year.

“Operation Warp Speed was started under President Donald Trump, and now it is continuing under President Joe Biden,” Guthrie said after touring the vaccination site at the Western Kentucky University Health Sciences Complex on the Med Center Health campus. “Regardless of your politics, there’s no reason not to be vaccinated.”

Guthrie, who has served in Congress since 2009 and has a consistently conservative voting record, tried to reassure his fellow conservatives, who polls indicate show the most vaccine hesitancy.

“From my perspective, I’m completely confident that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) cut no corners,” he said. “There have been zero shortcuts in safety and efficacy.”

Guthrie pointed to the vaccine center on the Med Center Health campus as an example of how the Pfizer vaccine program in particular has been put together efficiently.

“I’m an advocate of what’s happening here at The Medical Center,” Guthrie said. “They’re doing 900 vaccinations per day, and they’ve made it easy and efficient to do.”

Despite a system that runs people through the process with minimal wait times, Med Center Health Vice President of Corporate Support Services Dr. Melinda Joyce said she continues to see some vaccine hesitancy locally.

“We are seeing some hesitancy among women of child-bearing age,” Joyce said. “That’s concerning. There’s no science to show that the vaccine can cause reproductive issues. We really want everybody to get the vaccine if possible.”

Joyce said the five Med Center Health locations in southcentral Kentucky have administered 66,293 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, including 29,290 second doses.

With anyone age 16 and over now eligible to receive the vaccine in Kentucky, Guthrie expects that number to continue growing. Already, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,333,781 COVID-19 shots of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been administered in Kentucky.

Guthrie said the federal government has been instrumental in delivering the vaccines so quickly, either through buying doses directly from manufacturers or through provider relief funding included in the CARES Act.

“It’s fair to say that taxpayers are paying for it,” Guthrie said of the vaccine rollout. “We were absolutely correct to do that. Europe didn’t do that, and they’re having problems.”

Guthrie said the emergence of COVID-19 variants that can be more contagious and more harmful to young people only heightens the importance of getting vaccinated.

“We want to get everyone vaccinated before the virus figures out how to beat the vaccine,” he said. “It’s a race against the mutations.”

Saying he is anxious to do away with mask-wearing mandates and return to normal functioning of the economy, Guthrie said: “We’re close to the end of this if everybody will get vaccinated.”

– More information about vaccine sites and availability can be found at the state’s kycovid19.ky.gov website.

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

Report: Canceling $50K per student borrower would wipe away $8.15B debt for Kentuckians

If President Joe Biden were to forgive up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower, a proposal he is considering, it would wipe away student debt for 80% of Kentucky’s borrowers and cancel more than $8 billion in loans in the state.

That’s the top takeaway from a new analysis commissioned by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, which also found that another 125,800 Kentuckians would have a portion of their debt erased.

In addition, the move would free up purchasing power for Kentuckians to put money back into the economy and speed up its recovery, significantly narrow the racial wealth gap here and relieve borrowers who took out loans but were unable to secure degrees because of financial obstacles, the study said.

“Federal loan repayment deferral has been critical to Kentuckians getting by during the COVID-19 pandemic. But addressing the long-term student debt crisis is a necessary component of economic recovery,” KCEP Research Director Ashley Spalding wrote in a summary of the findings.

“Before COVID, the cost of higher education was steadily rising, wage trends remained mostly stagnant and a growing share of Kentuckians were taking on debt to finance their education. Without forgiveness, a brighter future will remain out of reach for many Kentuckians and our communities as a whole,” Spalding wrote.

A separate proposal in Washington to forgive up to $10,000 per borrower would have a much less pronounced impact. The analysis said 209,400 Kentucky borrowers would wipe away $1.09 billion in loans, with another 406,200 Kentuckians receiving partial forgiveness.

The median amount owed by Kentucky borrowers is about $18,000, but more than 125,000 owe more than $50,000 in federal student debt, according to the KCEP.

Black Kentuckians in particular, who are more likely to take out loans to finance their higher education and then struggle to pay back those loans, stand to gain from student debt forgiveness, the analysis found.

For example, a higher percentage of Black students who received federal student loans earned less than $30,000 than any other racial or ethnic group. Only 10.6% of Black former students at Kentucky public colleges and universities who got student loans ended up earning more than $48,000 in 2020. For comparison, for students from other racial and ethnic groups, 18% to 21% earned more than $48,000 in 2020.

The move would also offer substantial relief for Kentucky student borrowers still saddled with debt despite not having a degree to show for it.

Looking specifically at public colleges and universities and the students recently enrolled at those institutions in Kentucky (223,457 students who started college in 2012 or later), about 62% still have not received a degree, certificate or diploma. Out of that group, 18% have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Further, the analysis said that, based on 2020 incomes, more than half of former students made less than $30,000, with a quarter making more, between $30,000 and $48,000. Only 4.6% had incomes above $75,000.

Still, any form of debt forgiveness would only be a single step toward the college access crisis, according to the KCEP.

“Debt relief would be a step toward racial equity, and is an effective policy tool for economic recovery,” Spalding wrote. “The next steps are reinvesting in public higher education to bring down the cost of attendance and to increase the supports for degree completion, as well as increasing the minimum wage and other labor standards improvements so that Kentuckians can afford to invest in their potential.”

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Judge upholds suspect's arrest in federal drug case

A Franklin man’s arrest in Bowling Green on drug charges was legal, a federal judge ruled.

In an opinion filed Tuesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Brent Brennenstuhl said police had probable cause to arrest Adrian Nolan, 40, on Dec. 31, 2019, and serve him with an arrest warrant.

Nolan is charged in U.S. District Court with two counts of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute, two counts of possession of cocaine base with the intent to distribute, three counts of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, possession of an unregistered firearm, distribution of methamphetamine and possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.

Two of the firearm counts and two of the drug counts stem from the 2019 arrest, while the remaining charges were brought after a search warrant was executed at Nolan’s Franklin residence in 2017.

Nolan’s attorney, Dennie Hardin, had filed a motion to suppress the arrest, arguing that police did not adequately identify Nolan before stopping his vehicle in Bowling Green and acted on “nothing more than a hunch and an uncorroborated tip” that Nolan would be where he ended up being arrested.

Federal prosecutors argued that law enforcement had reasonable suspicion that Nolan, who was under investigation, would be in Bowling Green to meet with the mother of their child at a store parking lot, and that police observed Nolan fail to use a turn signal at a stop sign during the meeting, giving police probable cause to make a traffic stop and verify Nolan’s identity.

Brennenstuhl wrote that the traffic stop was legal because Kentucky State Police Trooper Brent Davis observed the failure to signal, giving him probable cause to make the stop.

At a hearing in February, Davis testified he was contacted to come to the parking lot to make the arrest after Deputy Brad Harper, a Simpson County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned as an agent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, had conducted surveillance of the parking lot from an unmarked vehicle.

“My whole mindset was to get a good probable cause traffic stop,” Davis testified at the February hearing in federal court.

Nolan pleaded guilty to the traffic violations in Warren District Court, which Brennenstuhl found prevents him from disputing whether there was probable cause for an arrest.

“Whether Trooper Davis may have been on the lookout for an excuse to stop the vehicle is irrelevant,” Brennenstuhl wrote. “Law enforcement officers may conduct a stop based upon the pretext of an actually observed traffic law violation, even though their subjective intention is to use the stop for purposes of investigation.”

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.