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Deadly pandemic tops local stories for 2020

For the first time in recent history, there seems no doubt that the top story of the year was the same locally, nationally and even internationally.

COVID-19, the disease most had never heard of until last spring, spread like a deadly wildfire across much of the globe. Southcentral Kentucky was not spared. The first case in the region was reported in March and then exploded locally much as it did across the nation.

As of the last day of 2020, the coronavirus had infected more than 19,000 residents of southcentral Kentucky with 233 reported deaths.

The virus’ impact was almost ubiquitous, as schools and businesses closed, countless events were canceled and daily life disrupted in myriad ways.

Among the notable deaths locally from the virus came in September, when Dr. Rebecca Shadowen, Med Center Health infectious disease expert, succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 62. Shadowen was a nationally recognized infectious disease expert who provided vital information about COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic.

Among the other top stories of 2020 were:

•The Bowling Green City Commission will have a new look in 2021 with two new city commissioners and a new mayor.

In September, incumbent Mayor Bruce Wilkerson, who had held the position since 2011, said he was dropping his reelection bid for health reasons.

That left political newcomer Todd Alcott as the only mayoral candidate on the November ballot. Alcott beat two write-in challengers to become the city’s next mayor.

In the race for four city commission seats, incumbents Joe Denning and Brian “Slim” Nash lost their bids. Denning was the city’s first Black police officer, mayor, school board and city commission member in a political career that spanned nearly 50 years. Nash had served six non-consecutive terms on the commission.

Incumbents Dana Beasley-Brown and Sue Parrigin are joined on the new commission by Carlos Bailey and Melinda Hill, who had previously served on the commission.

•The saga of Rene Boucher, the former neighbor of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, continued through 2020.

Boucher was convicted of assaulting Paul in 2017 outside their Bowling Green homes. After years of court proceedings, Boucher was re-sentenced in 2020 to eight months in prison and six months of home confinement after a previous 30-day sentence was overturned on appeal. With that action and the state Supreme Court declining to consider appeals in a civil case Paul won against Boucher, the legal battle stemming from Boucher’s assault of Paul has – seemingly – come to an end.

•Bowling Green residents joined calls for reform and justice after high-profile killings of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minnesota. As in much of the country, downtown Bowling Green was the site of numerous large demonstrations this summer drawing thousands of participants.

Several new social justice organizations were also formed as a result of the unrest: the Bowling Green Freedom Walkers, B.G for Peace and BG Gamechangers, which was established to advocate for a more diversified local workforce.

•National debates regarding historic markers and namesakes were also repeated on the campus of Western Kentucky University.

WKU President Timothy Caboni announced in August the formation of a task force to consider changing campus namesakes referencing slaveholders. Caboni also asked the Kentucky Historical Society last summer to remove a historic marker noting that Bowling Green was named the Confederate state capital in 1861.

As 2020 came to a close, the task force has not made formal recommendations regarding the namesakes and the marker remains in storage.

•In August, Doug Hawkins retired as Bowling Green Police Department chief after 14 years in the role. Michael Delaney was appointed in late July by the city commission to replace Hawkins as the first Black police chief in the city’s history. Delaney, a 22-year veteran of the BGPD and a Bowling Green native, joined the BGPD in 1998 and was named BGPD Officer of the Year in 2003.

•In October, Warren Fiscal Court allocated $750,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds to the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center. The funds came at the same time as a merger of SKyPAC with Orchestra Kentucky was announced for a new entity called Arts of Southern Kentucky, led by Orchestra Kentucky Music Director Jeff Reed.

•The Bowling Green Police Department established its Law Enforcement Academy, allowing new recruits to be trained in-house by their colleagues as opposed to being sent to the state academy. The BGPD is now one of five law enforcement agencies in the state with its own training academy, joining the Louisville and Lexington police departments, Kentucky State Police and the Department of Criminal Justice.

The inaugural class of the Law Enforcement Academy began training in June and the first class of 11 graduated in November.

•In March, Jimmie Gipson, CEO of Bowling Green-based Houchens Industries for 27 years, retired. During his tenure, Houchens was transformed from a regional retail grocery company to a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that is among the largest employee-owned companies in the world.

Scottsville couple welcomes 2021's Baby New Year

It’s safe to say that 2020 threw a lot of families’ plans into the woodchipper.

For Amy Graves, a nurse who was also pregnant during an uneasy virus pandemic, welcoming her second child Letty Jean Graves into the world was the highlight of the year.

“2020 was definitely a trying year for a lot of families,” said Graves, who gave birth to the first baby of 2021 at 1:19 a.m. Friday. “We definitely had a blessing, a silver lining, that we knew this little miracle was coming,” Graves said.

On Saturday, Graves was leaving The Medical Center in Bowling Green to bring her 7-pound, 9-ounce baby – roughly 20 inches long – home to Scottsville and to her son, who celebrated his first birthday in May when Graves learned she was pregnant.

The journey wasn’t without its challenges, both professional and personal, however. As a nurse in The Medical Center’s labor and delivery ward, Graves often found herself comforting expecting mothers who could not have their own families at their delivery. At the same time, she battled her own fears about becoming infected with the coronavirus, with pregnancy heightening the risk for severe COVID-19. The experience of showing up to doctor’s appointments without her husband, Lucian, “kind of felt lonely,” she said.

Still, Graves found a kind of resolve in her job as a nurse.

“That’s part of the nursing attitude, I think. You just go in and put others kind of before yourself,” Graves said.

On a more personal front, Graves’ father also received a cancer diagnosis last year.

“He is on the mend, and he can’t wait to get his hands on her,” Graves said of Letty.

Letty takes her middle name, Jean, from her two grandmothers, and after her husband Lucian suggested they stick with an L-theme in their family, Graves’ father came up with Letty as a baby name contender.

On Saturday, as the couple waited for the all-clear to leave the hospital with the newest addition to their family, Graves said she felt grateful for a healthy baby and was praying for a “new year for everyone and a better year for everyone,” she said.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, greets a crowd before he speaks at a campaign rally for Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Cumming, Ga. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Budget top priority as GOP-controlled General Assembly starts session

In an uncertain time, the Kentucky General Assembly on Tuesday will begin its 30-day session with certainty about at least one thing: Republicans will be setting the agenda.

In what Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer called “a victory for conservative values,” the GOP expanded its majorities in the November election and will begin the session with a 30-8 advantage in the Senate and a 75-25 majority in the House.

That is sure to affect this session’s top priority, constructing a one-year state budget, and it’s certain to make life difficult for Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear. Republican lawmakers are already taking aim in some pre-filed bills targeting Beshear’s use of emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those bills address the governor’s executive order powers in different ways, limiting the length of the orders or requiring the calling of a special session of the General Assembly to validate a declaration of emergency.

State Rep. Steve Sheldon, R-Bowling Green, pre-filed a bill that would require the governor to call a special session of the legislature in order for executive orders to continue beyond 15 days.

He anticipates his bill will be merged with a bevy of others to address how the governor can utilize Kentucky Revised Statute 39A.100, which deals with emergency powers of the governor and local chief executive officers.

“The statute was written to address more short-term things,” Sheldon said. “I think what you’ll see is an attempt to allow this governor or future governors to have the flexibility to react quickly in emergencies but add some accountability when the legislature is not in session.”

State Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, agreed that reining in the executive branch’s emergency powers is a priority.

“I don’t think anybody envisioned that we’d be living under emergency powers for eight or nine months without any legislative input,” Meredith said.

Limiting Beshear’s emergency powers, though, will take a back seat to writing a budget.

The 2020 General Assembly deviated from its normal practice of passing biennial budgets and passed a one-year, $11.4 billion budget because of the uncertainties of the pandemic.

That leaves the current legislature with the task of coming up with another one-year budget and doing it at a time when the pandemic continues to be a drag on the economy.

“I do think the early part of the session will be heavily dedicated to the budget,” Meredith said. “We’re having to write a budget with a lot of uncertainty.”

As a result, many lawmakers expect a budget similar to the one passed in 2020 that included no raises for state employees and no increases for areas including education.

Thanks in part to help from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, the state government ended the fiscal year on June 30 with $11.567 billion in receipts and a general fund surplus of $177.5 million.

That surplus, though, was partly due to a strong pre-pandemic economy and the ability to collect taxes on enhanced unemployment benefits.

Projecting tax revenues for the coming months during a continuing economic slump isn’t easy, so lawmakers like state Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, are expecting another bare-bones budget.

“We’ve had the CFG (Consensus Forecasting Group) come up with three different estimates of revenue: low, medium and high,” Wilson said. “The last time, we budgeted to the low end. We’ll have some additional federal money (from the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress), but we still need to be conservative on the budget.”

The emphasis on the budget in this short session will probably mean that legislation addressing such recurring issues as changing the funding mechanism for the state road fund and shoring up the state retirement systems may take a back seat.

Bills addressing both of those issues are among the 212 pre-filed bills listed on the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission website, but Meredith isn’t optimistic that he and his colleagues will be able to address them.

“I think the scope of the session will be the budget, COVID relief and the emergency powers,” Meredith said. “We also need to address the backlog in unemployment insurance benefits.”

The list of pre-filed bills includes such right-leaning legislation as a proposed amendment that would create a new section of the Kentucky Constitution stating that it does not secure or protect a right to abortion or funding of abortion.

Democrats have filed some progressive legislation, including a bill that would gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2028 and a statewide Fairness Law that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to state discrimination protections in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Although the big Republican majorities make passage of such bills unlikely, state Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, promises to be an advocate for both.

“I certainly plan to co-sponsor the minimum wage bill,” Minter said. “In supporting the Fairness Law, I am keeping my promise to my constituents. We need federal, state and local protection to make sure everyone is treated fairly.”

Minter expects this to be “the strangest session” in memory because of the urgency of passing a budget in a short session and the safeguards that will be in place because of the pandemic.

She said the session will start Tuesday with House members being trained on how to vote remotely from their offices. The 100 representatives will be allowed to vote in the House chamber or in their offices, while the 38 senators will vote in the Senate chamber.

“The House Democratic caucus is committed to wearing masks at all times and social distancing,” Minter said. “We’re deeply committed to modeling behavior that will keep Kentuckians safe.”