Permanent federal approval for one coronavirus vaccine Monday should have eliminated the arguments of some sadly misled, vaccine-hesitant Americans that Operation Warp Speed is just one big experiment. But as Kentucky deals with another deadly surge of the coronavirus, it has started a heavily fraught experiment involving all three branches of its government, one that will likely affect the course of the pandemic — and the lives of many Kentuckians.

Al Cross

Al Cross

For almost 18 months, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has been a pandemic czar, under a state of emergency he declared under a law the last completely Democratic legislature passed for a Democratic governor in 1998. This year, the firmly Republican legislature put a strict 30-day time limit on governors’ emergency orders, and last Saturday the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld it, pending arguments that the idea that 30 days is unconstitutionally short.

Beshear said he was surprised by the decision, since the high court had unanimously upheld his use of emergency powers. But the state constitution makes clear that the General Assembly is the main policy-making branch of government; it writes laws and can limit governors’ emergency powers.

Beshear's remark may reflect the warped sense of reality you can develop when you are a czar, issuing orders and mandates that affect personal behavior while winning approval in public-opinion polls.

Most Kentuckians seem to take the pandemic seriously, but not enough to keep the state from having a high infection rate. That’s largely because we rank 28th in vaccinations, with only 48% of us fully vaccinated — the only figure that counts against the highly contagious delta variant.

Too many Kentuckians take cues from irresponsible politicians like U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie, who have repeatedly cast doubt on the need to get vaccinated and mask up; and from their allies in partisan media and echo chambers on social media, who make villains of public-health experts who deserve our respect.

Most Republicans who lead the General Assembly have been more responsible, focusing their criticism of Beshear on his unwillingness to work with them — and, more recently, their preference for local and parental decision-making on the issue of masks in schools.

Beshear did himself no favors when he rebuffed Republicans’ offer of help early in the pandemic. He could have brought them at least partially into his tent, perhaps co-opting them but also learning from them, and about them. He has yet to develop a real working relationship with them, almost 21 months into his 48-month term. Now he must, and so must they.

It may not be easy. Republican leaders are saddled with the consequences of their national partisan allies’ politicization of the pandemic, which has made much of their voter base resistant to vaccination and masking, the two main preventive measures we need.

That showed in Senate President Robert Stivers’ quick rejection of a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces, something Beshear would be reviving shortly if not for the Supreme Court. Stivers signaled Republicans’ preferred approach by announcing a pro-vaccination campaign in his home Clay County, which has the state’s highest infection rate. Shots will be given at schools, which will compete for prizes, and the vaccinated will get coupons for free pizza.

The incentive approach seems likelier to work on the local level, with local influentials delivering the messages, than the vaccine lotteries being used by Beshear and some other governors. More incentives are needed.

House Speaker David Osborne of Prospect has a district with one of the state’s lowest infection rates, but his job is more difficult because all his members are up for re-election next year, and some are outspoken firebrands who are indirectly damaging public health, like Paul and Massie.

Osborne already had a big member-management problem. Republicans face the challenge of drawing new House districts to conform to the 2020 census, which will surely pit some of them against each other because rural areas have lost population. Republicans would rather put off redistricting until after the 2022 elections, but courts are unlikely to allow that.

Osborne told me in an email, “Our caucus is going to continue to be deliberate and intentional in how we approach this pandemic. ...It is our intent to work closely with the administration, hear their recommendations, and work with them as well as other stakeholders to set the policies.”

Before long, Osborne, Stivers and other legislative leaders will hear recommendations that will be politically unpopular. We can only hope that their judgments won’t be determined by politics, and if that requires risking their own leadership positions by going against the political grain, they will show courage for the greater good.

Frankfort resident Al Cross is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010. NKyTribune is the anchor home for Cross’ column. It is published here with permission.

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