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.
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.