Every year, the General Assembly proposes a host of bills ostensibly aimed at improving Kentuckians’ quality of life. Though it’s always telling to ask “whose quality of life,” this year’s gamut of bills that have the potential to benefit wealthy Kentuckians and harm the rest of us is staggering. On the agenda are tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, woefully underfunded education and health in the new budget, and deep cuts to food, health and unemployment assistance. If these bills become law, they will push many Kentuckians deeper into poverty, leave many more struggling to keep a foothold in the middle class, and concentrate more resources into the hands of those already doing very well.
Here are some bills we’re tracking with great concern about their impact on quality of life in the commonwealth.
House Bill (HB) 4 takes what was already an incredibly frustrating unemployment insurance system and makes it stingier and harder to navigate. It drastically cuts the number of weeks people can get help after being laid off, forces more paperwork on claimants and explicitly pushes laid-off workers into lower-paying jobs outside their careers.
HB 7 is a tangle of new red tape and barriers for Kentuckians seeking assistance with groceries and medicine. Despite affordable food and health care creating the foundation for economic security, this bureaucratic maze of new eligibility rules, reporting mandates and paperwork tripwires would leave seniors, kids and underpaid workers hungrier and sicker. And it would cost the state a lot to implement.
Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 150 is another example of legislation that cuts help with groceries. Because of our state of emergency, Kentuckians who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been getting an average of 41% more toward groceries. But ending that emergency declaration early with SJR 150 means SNAP participants will see their benefits shrink by an average of $100 per month in May, pulling $50 million out of our economy each month we don’t have that extra funding.
HB 313 bans nonprofits from helping to pay bail for those who can’t afford it, taking away one of the only ways for Kentuckians without financial means to avoid pretrial incarceration in our wealth-based detention system. So just because they can’t afford bail, folks who have not yet been convicted of a crime will have to sit in jail rather than participate as members of their family or society.
And at the same time that both chambers have proposed budgets that put less money into preschool, education, health and human services and infrastructure than is needed, there’s a chance the General Assembly will make future budgets even more sparse due to tax breaks to wealthy corporate interests and individuals.
There is a bevy of corporate tax giveaways under consideration, ranging from tax breaks for data centers operated by big corporations like Amazon, Facebook and Google to giveaways to investment bankers and reductions in businesses’ already historically low contributions to unemployment insurance.
And then of course there is HB 8, which lowers the income tax rate from 5% to 4% immediately, and eventually bottoms-out at a 0% income tax rate. HB 8 would ultimately serve up an annual $55,000 tax break (which is larger than the median household income in Kentucky) to millionaires, while doing next to nothing for the bottom 80%.
But HB 8 is not just a giveaway to rich Kentuckians — it also blows a billion-dollar hole through our state budget that will just get deeper and deeper — leaving us with less and less to afford education, health care, family supports and everything else we care about as a commonwealth.
If the legislature pairs nationally unparalleled attacks on our safety net with bills that shovel money out of the General Fund to rich corporate interests, it will lower the quality of life in Kentucky. Far from being “business friendly,” these bills would make Kentucky a worse place to live, raise a family and contribute to the economy.
But there is still time. The General Assembly can sustain a veto on HB 4, reverse course on HB 7, and leave behind bills addressing the symptom rather than the cause of wealth-based detention. They can chart a fiscally responsible course that protects our revenue stream so we can adequately invest in the foundations of our economy and well-being like high-quality child and elder care, strong public education, and healthy families and communities.
This column appeared in the State Journal on March 23, 2022.