From Local Voices to External Forces: The Shift in Kentucky’s Legislative Landscape

Many bills passed by the General Assembly each year receive strong bipartisan and even unanimous support.  Many of these good bills begin as conversations with Kentuckians who have encountered barriers and concerns that need to be addressed, or who have come up with ideas to help their fellow Kentuckians statewide.  This practical problem-solving approach is the cornerstone of good government. 

Unfortunately, a growing number of bills are anything but local. These initiatives spark public outrage and divisive floor debate, and spring from far-away, well-funded groups pushing extremist political ideology in whatever state they can gain a foothold.

The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) is one such group.  FGA’s influence is especially pronounced during this year’s legislative session.

We can see that clearly in House Bill 255, which would roll back already-permissive child labor laws.  Its provisions would remove overnight work restrictions and the up-to-40-hour weekly limit for 16- and 17-year-olds when school is in session, while also allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to enter the workforce and be assigned dangerous tasks.

Not surprisingly, states that have gutted worker protections for kids have seen increased rates of school dropouts and workplace injuries.  Policy that undermines the safety and education of our young people increases their risk of being stuck in a cycle of generational poverty. 

Kentucky is already one of the most dangerous places in the country to be a child.  Just look at our alarmingly high numbers of children living in out-of-home care, our historically high rate of child abuse and the extreme number of Kentucky kids living in poverty.  House Bill 255 will only make things worse for Kentucky’s already too-vulnerable young people. 

House Bill 367 would further burden many of them and hundreds of thousands of others who receive food assistance provided by the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  This bill builds barriers affecting seniors, children, low-wage workers, veterans, people with disabilities and those seeking jobs in regions where adequate work opportunities simply do not exist.

Economically speaking, House Bill 367 is bad policy. It would cost the state an estimated $2.3 million annually, while forfeiting over $110 million each year in federal food assistance dollars.  This money does more than just feed families; it is also a vital economic boost helping farmers, farmers markets, school meal programs, grocery stores and local economies. 

A third bill with FGA’s fingerprints on it is House Bill 500, which would weaken wage protections for hourly employees that have been in place for decades.  This would lead to lower pay during meal breaks and while traveling to and from job sites.  The bill has cleared a committee and could be voted on soon in the House.

Legislators speaking in support of these bills echo FGA talking points with barely any change.  FGA representatives are present at legislative meetings, and during debate on House Bill 367, I was appalled to hear one of them unabashedly misrepresent what the bill would actually do.

Loosening labor laws and removing federal benefits are not the only areas where FGA is pushing its national agenda here in Kentucky.  Other bills this year would limit mail-in and absentee voting; make state school board elections partisan; ban Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies at public colleges and universities; undercut local authority; and create unnecessary barriers to housing assistance.

These bills weren’t written by Kentuckians, but they will have a profoundly negative impact on our commonwealth just the same.  We need to reject these ideas and return to the days when we focus on legislation designed by and for the people we in the General Assembly are elected to serve.

Avatar for Representative Lisa Willner

Representative Lisa Willner (D-Louisville) has served in the Kentucky State House since 2019.