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Lawmakers convene to assist flood-damaged eastern Kentucky

August 24, 2022 GMT
Kentucky state Sens. Stephen West, left, and Ralph Alvarado chat on the opening day of a special legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Lawmakers were called into session by Gov. Andy Beshear to take up legislation providing state assistance for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky.  (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)
Kentucky state Sens. Stephen West, left, and Ralph Alvarado chat on the opening day of a special legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Lawmakers were called into session by Gov. Andy Beshear to take up legislation providing state assistance for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky.  (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)
Kentucky state Sens. Stephen West, left, and Ralph Alvarado chat on the opening day of a special legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Lawmakers were called into session by Gov. Andy Beshear to take up legislation providing state assistance for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky.  (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)
Kentucky state Sens. Stephen West, left, and Ralph Alvarado chat on the opening day of a special legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Lawmakers were called into session by Gov. Andy Beshear to take up legislation providing state assistance for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)
Kentucky state Sens. Stephen West, left, and Ralph Alvarado chat on the opening day of a special legislative session on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, in Frankfort, Ky. Lawmakers were called into session by Gov. Andy Beshear to take up legislation providing state assistance for flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky. (AP Photo/Bruce Schreiner)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers took up a state assistance package Wednesday that would pump nearly $213 million into flood-ravaged Appalachian communities — an initial installment to help with the mammoth rebuilding still ahead for the stricken region.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and top Republican lawmakers stood together to promote the relief package on the opening day of a special legislative session.

Beshear reconvened lawmakers nearly a month after historic flooding inundated parts of eastern Kentucky. Surging floodwaters destroyed homes and businesses and caused significant damage to schools, roads, bridges and water systems. The disaster caused at least 39 deaths, while thousands of families “lost everything,” the governor said at a news conference.

State Rep. John Blanton touted the resilience of eastern Kentuckians, saying: “They are ready to rebuild and we are prepared to help them do so.” The Republican lawmaker represents some of the hardest-hit areas and is a lead sponsor of the House relief measure.

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The $212.7 million aid package would dip into the state’s massive budget reserves to help cities, counties, school districts and utilities recover across a wide swath of eastern Kentucky.

“We are committed to ensuring our cities and our counties don’t go bankrupt in providing the necessary services and repairs that need to be done right now,” Beshear said. “And making sure that our local utilities don’t have to raise rates on families that already are struggling to rebuild and wondering what tomorrow is going to bring.”

Companion flood-assistance measures were introduced in the Senate and House on Wednesday, and budget committees started digging into the details. The session is expected to last until Friday.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican, laid out an accelerated schedule meant to “get this done as quickly as possible, to send a message to our friends and neighbors in eastern Kentucky that help is on its way from the state government.”

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said the relief package is aimed at “short-term objectives” in assisting the stricken counties. Stivers, who represents portions of eastern Kentucky, spoke of the unimaginable devastation wrought by the raging floodwaters.

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“To see a house sitting on top of a bridge, that you can’t cross the bridge because they have to move the house first,” he said. “Well, they said, ‘how do you know it’s a house?’ Well, I could see the plumbing pipes coming out the bottom. Literally, that’s the type of devastation you’ve seen here.”

When the legislature reconvenes in January for its regular 2023 session, lawmakers will consider follow-up measures to assist the region.

“I want to be clear, that while this is going to provide relief, it is meant for the next six months,” the governor said of the aid measures introduced Wednesday. “It is meant until the next meeting of the General Assembly, when we’ll have so much more information.”

The influx of state assistance — coupled with federal aid and private donations — is seen as crucial to rebuilding in eastern Kentucky, which for years has suffered from a declining coal industry.

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The latest need for disaster-related aid comes as the Bluegrass State is flush with revenue. The state’s Budget Reserve Trust Fund surged to $2.7 billion after huge surpluses were amassed over the past two fiscal years.

The eastern Kentucky relief plan would draw $200 million from the reserve fund.

The biggest chunk — $115 million — would provide support to cities, counties, school districts, state agencies and utility service providers, Beshear said. Another $45 million would help repair and replace bridges and roads. And $40 million would be used for repairs to school buildings, for additional transportation costs for displaced students and services for children and families.

Nearly $12.7 million in federal funds will be used for water and sewer infrastructure projects.

It’s the second time within a year that Kentucky lawmakers have taken up emergency relief stemming from epic weather disasters. The flood-related measures are similar to tornado-relief legislation for the other end of the state. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a $200 million package for portions of western Kentucky devastated by tornadoes in December.

“As we did for western Kentucky, we have cast politics aside and will address the immediate needs of those who have endured so much,” Stivers said Tuesday.

Republicans hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers in Kentucky.