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Elections, broadband highlighted at General Assembly committee meetings

By Gracie Lagadinos
Calloway County Judge/Executive Kenneth Imes and KACo's Legislative Director Shellie Hampton testified in front of the Interim Joint Committee on Local Government about the importance of broadband access and affordability.

Each year during the legislative interim, many General Assembly committees take their meetings on the road. Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, legislators attended the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville to hold various committee meetings and to witness the limited fair activities and COVID-19 safety precautions in place, including social distancing, mandatory masks and temperature checks. 

County Clerks give elections update

The morning began with the Interim Joint Committee on State Government, during which Kenton County Clerk Gabrielle Summe and Spencer County Clerk Lynn Hesselbrock reflected on the primary election and shared how their offices are preparing for November’s general election.

Both Summe and Hesselbrock expressed their appreciation to Gov. Andy Beshear, Sec. of State Michael Adams and the State Board of Elections for working together and including county clerks to develop the guidelines to make sure Kentuckians can vote safely. The emergency regulations outlining the rules of the general election can be found here.

Although there were some obstacles during the primary election, such as postage costs and a shortage of precinct officers, “Everybody did what was best for their county, and it worked,” Summe said.

Seventy-five percent of primary election voters cast their ballots by absentee voting by mail.

Hesselbrock urged legislators and local officials to assist clerks in educating voters on the various options for voting in the general election, including early, in-person voting, and the option to request an absentee ballot through the online portal at https://vrsws.sos.ky.gov/ovrweb/govoteky

She hopes Spencer County will have a mobile voting unit, which will help provide early voting accessibility to voters in more rural parts of the county. Early in-person voting begins Oct. 13, during weekday business hours and for at least four hours on Saturdays.

Hampton and Imes testify on broadband challenges

The Interim Joint Committee on Local Government also met Thursday afternoon to discuss several issues, including Gov. Beshear’s executive order relating to utility cutoffs, a proposal for the 2021 session that would allow a local government to be named a conservator for abandoned properties and broadband access and affordability in counties.

Calloway County Judge/Executive Kenneth Imes, who is a former state legislator, and KACo Legislative Director Shellie Hampton expressed the vital need for broadband across the Commonwealth. 

“I live a quarter of a mile from the city,” Imes said. “My county has four (internet service) providers, and I’m not in any of their service areas.”

Calloway County has applied for a $5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to help facilitate broadband access in the county. 

Community partners such as Farm Bureau and Westen Kentucky Telephone Cooperative have placed wireless hotspots in their offices and around the county to give students with no home internet a place to access free wireless service. 

Imes asked the legislators to encourage the large telecom providers to increase their participation in expanding broadband access to Kentucky’s rural areas. He also has spoken to Congressman James Comer, who is aware of the internet needs and lack of accessibility and will be bringing this issue before members of Congress. 

Hampton told the committee the lack of access to broadband and affordability of the service have risen as top concerns among county officials during the pandemic. 

“As COVID-19 forced a transition to virtual work at all levels of our daily lives, it has shed light on the pre-COVID issue of the significant stretches of unserved and underserved broadband access at varying levels, but certainly an issue for almost every county,” Hampton said.

KACo will be reaching out to various stakeholder groups impacted by this problem and looking at both statutory and regulatory changes to bring relief to this problem. 

“Broadband access has become the 21st century equivalent of the need for electricity in the early 20th century,” Hampton said. 

She applauded the passage of House Bill 362 during the 2020 session. Sponsored by Rep. Phillip Pratt (R-Scott County), the bill established two separate funds for government agencies and private providers to access funds to deploy broadband service in these underserved and unserved areas. However, lawmakers allocated no funding, and Hampton expressed county support for funding in the 2021 budget. 

Sen. Robby Mills (R-Henderson County) told members of the committee he believes there will be multiple bills to address broadband accessibility during the 2021 Legislative Session. 

“This issue is a prime concern for our counties for economic development reasons,” Rep. Danny Bentley (R-Greenup County) said.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado (R-Clark County) shared his concern that lack of internet access creates further health disparities as the use of telehealth for medical appointments has only increased with the onset of the pandemic. 

Click here to access the recorded meeting in its entirety. 

 

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