Kentucky state capitol

Lawmakers wrest control from educators, punish the poor

Sine die. That’s Latin for “with­out a day.” In leg­isla­tive par­lance, it means pro­ceed­ings have end­ed and aren’t sched­uled to resume.

Last Thursday marked the end of the 2022 reg­u­lar ses­sion of the Kentucky General Assembly, and there isn’t anoth­er day to undo the dam­age done by Republican law­mak­ers, who have total con­trol of leg­is­la­tion in Frankfort.

In 60 days, while few of us were watch­ing, they removed defens­es against a dead­ly con­ta­gion, weak­ened the role of teach­ers and par­ents in schools, gave local politi­cians author­i­ty over pub­lic libraries, made it hard­er for poor chil­dren and their par­ents to get pub­lic assis­tance, and made the state’s tax sys­tem more regressive.

This is the kind of thing that hap­pens when you have one-par­ty rule.

In the near­ly four decades we’ve been watch­ing and writ­ing about laws made in Frankfort, we’ve nev­er seen any­thing so egregious.

Giving up on COVID-19

Legislators con­vened at a time when the coro­n­avirus was surg­ing, yet they did every­thing they could to end mea­sures intend­ed to pro­tect Kentuckians against the dead­liest con­ta­gion in more than a century.

In the 2022 reg­u­lar ses­sion and last year’s short ses­sion, Republican law­mak­ers shack­led the gov­er­nor and his health offi­cials, severe­ly lim­it­ing their abil­i­ty to take emer­gency actions to lim­it the spread of the virus that has claimed more than 15,200 lives in Kentucky alone and near­ly one mil­lion in the U.S. — about a sixth of the world’s total. They also pro­hib­it­ed schools from hav­ing mask man­dates, which reversed an ear­li­er deci­sion leav­ing it up to local school boards, and they pro­hib­it­ed pub­lic enti­ties from requir­ing employ­ees to dis­close their COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tion sta­tus. Last year they lim­it­ed the lia­bil­i­ty of busi­ness­es that don’t take steps to pro­tect their employ­ees and cus­tomers from the virus.

In a most­ly sym­bol­ic act, the leg­is­la­ture arbi­trar­i­ly end­ed the state of emer­gency the gov­er­nor declared two years ago. That mea­sure was pro­posed by a new state sen­a­tor who is a physi­cian. Does a doctor’s oath to “do no harm” not apply to health laws?

COVID-19 infec­tions and deaths are wan­ing in Kentucky even as the emer­gence of a new vari­ant rais­es con­cerns in oth­er parts of the coun­try. But when the bill passed, the National Guard was still assist­ing some Kentucky hos­pi­tals that were over­whelmed. Still, leg­is­la­tors want­ed to send a mes­sage: COVID-19 may not be over, but we’re over it.

Punishing the poor

The leg­is­la­tion end­ing the state of emer­gency had lit­tle effect on pub­lic health because there were no longer any state COVID-19 restric­tions in place. But the gov­er­nor said it would keep Kentucky from get­ting about half a mil­lion dol­lars in extra ben­e­fits for nutri­tion­al assis­tance and oth­er aid. Legislators dis­pute this and point­ed to a pro­vi­sion that says it isn’t intend­ed to impair the state’s abil­i­ty to receive pan­dem­ic-relat­ed fed­er­al aid.

What could hurt low-income Kentuckians more is a new law that tight­ens eli­gi­bil­i­ty rules for pub­lic assis­tance in an attempt to fight wel­fare fraud. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services esti­mat­ed that the cum­ber­some report­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion rules in House Bill 7 could cost the state $535 mil­lion, most­ly by requir­ing more staff, as well as turn­ing away tens of mil­lions in fed­er­al assistance.

Facing crit­i­cism, the House passed a mod­i­fied ver­sion that changed the expen­sive ver­i­fi­ca­tion mea­sures but left in place tougher penal­ties for fraud and a com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment pro­gram for able-bod­ied Medicaid recip­i­ents with­out depen­dents. The Republican Senator who led the pas­sage of the bill in the Senate said the intent is to improve account­abil­i­ty and pro­tect the mon­ey for those who need it most.

The Senate Minority Floor Leader, a Louisville Democrat, said it still “pun­ish­es peo­ple just for being poor” and point­ed out that instances of fraud in the nutri­tion pro­gram are only 0.002 per­cent of all cas­es, and that Kentucky already does an excel­lent job of inves­ti­gat­ing and pros­e­cut­ing wel­fare fraud.

“We are going to spend more mon­ey than we are going to save by tak­ing food off of people’s plates,” he said.

The House Minority Whip said “it doesn’t keep me up at night wor­ry­ing that there is a tiny per­cent­age of peo­ple who might get ben­e­fits and didn’t deserve them. What keeps me up at night is wor­ry­ing that there might be peo­ple hun­gry who couldn’t jump through the hoops and get benefits.”

Kentucky, a poor state with a pop­u­la­tion of 4.5 mil­lion, has 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple enrolled in Medicaid and about 544,000 who get SNAP (for­mer­ly food stamp) benefits.

Ending school reform

When the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) became law in 1990, it was a mod­el for the nation. One of the big things it did was shift con­trol of hir­ing and cur­ricu­lum away from politi­cians and strength­ened the involve­ment of par­ents and teach­ers in the edu­ca­tion­al process by cre­at­ing site-based deci­sion-mak­ing coun­cils. This year, the GOP-led General Assembly shift­ed that con­trol back, essen­tial­ly end­ing that reform.

Senate Bill 1 gives dis­trict super­in­ten­dents, who must answer to elect­ed school boards, the author­i­ty to decide on cur­ricu­lum for schools and hire prin­ci­pals. It also includes lan­guage requir­ing “teach­ing American prin­ci­ples” in school, which is a veiled attempt to pre­vent the teach­ing of crit­i­cal race the­o­ry, a the­o­ry about sys­temic racism that is taught in law school, not high school.

In oth­er leg­is­la­tion, law­mak­ers cod­i­fied a fund­ing for­mu­la for char­ter schools, using tax­pay­er dol­lars intend­ed for pub­lic schools to pay for pri­vate education.

Also dur­ing the ses­sion, leg­is­la­tors approved a bill to bring pol­i­tics into pub­lic libraries by allow­ing coun­ty judge-exec­u­tives to appoint the board mem­bers. What con­cerns us about that is that we’ve known many coun­ty offi­cials who have lit­tle or no appre­ci­a­tion for what libraries do to edu­cate the pub­lic and begrudge them the mon­ey they get to car­ry out their mis­sion. We fear some may also try to cen­sor what books and oth­er mate­ri­als they purchase.

Regressive taxation

One of the basic truths about tax­a­tion is that sales and prop­er­ty tax­es are regres­sive. They place a greater bur­den on those who can least afford to pay. Graduated income tax­es, which tax those with more income at a high­er rate, are the most progressive.

Kentucky’s income tax rate max­es out at 5 per­cent, so it is basi­cal­ly a flat tax. But leg­is­la­tors want to phase out the income tax alto­geth­er, and they began this year by cut­ting it to 4.5 percent.

The income tax accounts for about 40 per­cent of the state’s rev­enue, and House Bill 8 only makes up for about 10 per­cent of the loss by apply­ing the state’s sales tax to more services.

Republicans believe that tax­ing con­sump­tion instead of income is an incen­tive for eco­nom­ic growth. But Kentucky is doing quite well in eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, and we don’t see how depriv­ing the state of the mon­ey it needs for improv­ing the qual­i­ty of life of its cit­i­zens with bet­ter schools, parks and oth­er pub­lic neces­si­ties attracts investment.

An offi­cial with the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy in Berea calls the bill “the most fis­cal­ly destruc­tive leg­is­la­tion ever con­sid­ered in the commonwealth.”

We fear our leg­is­la­tors want to make Kentucky like Tennessee, which has the most regres­sive tax sys­tem in the nation. In addi­tion to the 7 per­cent state sales tax, local gov­ern­ments are able to add their own tax­es of up to 2.75 percent.

We wouldn’t buy a new car in Tennessee.

More of the same

The gov­er­nor vetoed most of the worst bills the Republican leg­is­la­ture passed this year, but with Democrats con­trol­ling only 25 of the 100 seats in the House and eight of the 38 seats in the Senate, the Republican Party is able to eas­i­ly over­ride his vetoes and has no incen­tive to com­pro­mise or mod­er­ate its policies.

Although Kentucky is almost even­ly divid­ed between Democrats and Republicans, with each par­ty hav­ing about 45 per­cent of the total of 3.5 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers, the ger­ry­man­der­ing involved in redis­trict­ing makes it unlike­ly that Kentuckians will get a gov­ern­ment that more close­ly resem­bles the demo­graph­ic make­up of their state in the fore­see­able future.