Child labor, food assistance bills stall in Kentucky Senate committee but could get another chance

Republished from Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT — A Senate committee on Thursday blocked House bills that would loosen state restrictions on child labor and tighten eligibility for food assistance, but the measures are not necessarily dead.

The committee could consider both bills again at a specially-called meeting Friday, said Sen. Max Wise, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, & Labor. 

House Bill 367, which anti-hunger advocates had warned could lead to greater food insecurity in Kentucky fell short of the votes needed to advance to the full Senate, despite changes to the bill made by its sponsor.

The bill sponsor aimed to increase workforce participation with the legislation. It would, among other things, give the General Assembly power over decisions about work requirements for Kentucky’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP

Since his bill cleared the House in February, Rep. Wade Williams, R-Earlington, said he made it “a much narrower bill.” 

He deleted a section of the bill that would have restored the federal asset test, ending the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ ability to waive asset limits through the Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE). This would have excluded households with savings worth $2,750 as long as there are no disabled or elderly people in the household and excluded seniors and people with disabilities who had $4,250 saved.

The edits weren’t enough to convince some senators. 

Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, said that he does not question the intention behind the legislation. But, he said, it “works against everything that we’ve done in the last few years” to address benefits cliffs.  

“All this does is it places another wedge between people who are working and are trying to do what is best for them and what we want them to do policy-wise for the commonwealth,” Howell said. “It throws another wedge in there to keep them down in a lower economic demographic; keeps them from … being able to build any wealth, to build any assets.” 

“I think it flies in the face of everything that we’ve been trying to do as a policy for the Commonwealth of Kentucky for the last few years,” Howell continued. “And I’m a solid no.” 

Dalla Emerson is the director of food service operations for Bowling Green Schools (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)

Dalla Emerson, the director of food service operations for Bowling Green Schools, previously told the Lantern the bill could result in children going hungry. Access to free and reduced school lunches is tied to community poverty levels and participation in programs like SNAP.  

“I commend our legislators in making the best decision for the commonwealth,” she said Thursday. 

Jordan Ojile with Feeding Kentucky said his organization feels “encouraged” about the changes to the bill. 

“However, the remaining provision would still leave Kentuckians hungry, and we are glad the Senate Committee chose not to pass through the amended legislation,” he said. “Obviously, the fight to protect SNAP is not over, but today is worth celebrating.”

Rev. James Todd Smith, the chair of the Justice and Advocacy Commission and of the Kentucky Council on Churches and the pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church, also praised the committee members who voted against HB367. 

“It is my prayer,” he told the Lantern, “that the committee will not take it up again and that hungry people in the commonwealth will continue to have access to SNAP benefits without impediment.” 

Child labor

Rep. Phillip Pratt.
Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, speaks on his bill that would loosen state child labor law. (Courtesy Kentucky LRC)

 Rep. Phillip Pratt’s House Bill 255, which would allow some teenagers to work longer and later hours, also fell short of the votes needed to advance to the Senate floor.. 

Lobbyist Gerald Adkins, speaking for the AFL-CIO and Kentucky State Building and Construction Trades Council, told the committee that labor is working with Pratt to improve the bill and asked the members to vote  “in hopes of making it better on the floor” through amendments.

The measure would repeal Kentucky’s existing child labor laws and align them with federal laws, which are less restrictive for minors aged 16 and 17.

Dustin Pugel of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy testified that the bill would not increase teen employment by opening up the the job market for younger workers but would lower guardrails that protect young workers from hazardous conditions and unlimited hours.   

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