Kentucky General Assembly fumbles opportunities to help kids

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


It’s Spring 2024 in the Bluegrass State. And if I am writing about sports, I should be focused on new basketball coaches and the Derby and the PGA Championship at Valhalla. But as I reflect on the 2024 General Assembly, my mind drifts to football and the 1938 Chicago Bears. That was the team which still holds the NFL record for the most fumbles in a single season. And from my viewpoint, this legislative session had the most fumbles for kids I have seen in my 20 years at Kentucky Youth Advocates.

There were fumbles that had to do with raw politics. As an example, HB 11 was a common sense and bipartisan effort to curb the epidemic of vaping among Kentucky’s kids … and I am talking 4th and 5th graders here! This was a proposal that simply put teeth in existing sanctions against retailers selling vape and tobacco products to your 10-year-old kid. The bill gathered excellent movement. In fact, the momentum was so strong that Big Tobacco — at the last minute — dumped big bucks for a well-connected lobbying group to dilute the effort to a degree that the legislation was rendered useless.

Your 6th grade grandkid can probably buy a vape product at your corner store this afternoon because the General Assembly fumbled away an opportunity to protect kids.

Other fumbles were caused by legislative near-sightedness. As an example, no one can ignore the burgeoning crisis within the state’s juvenile justice system. We absolutely need a myriad of reforms ranging from punishment to prevention. Perhaps the most critical crossroads decision is, what happens to that youth when they make a mistake? Do we continue practices that do little for deterrence and most likely simply deepen recidivism? Or do we make moves that can actually put that young person back on the right track? Through budget negotiations, we at first saw promising per-year investments in thoughtful “get back on the right track” alternatives to detention programming, such as in-home wraparound services and community-based responses.

And the final result? While there were much-needed investments in physical and mental health services for those youth in detention, the funding for addressing behaviors while keeping young people out of the maze of the juvenile justice system fell short.

And then there were fumbles that can — at best — be described as dumb … er, I mean dumbfounding. This was a General Assembly running hard on a highly politicized “tough on crime” mantra. We are going to criminalize the homeless. A kid is missing too much school? Let’s not dig into root causes and engage families. Instead, let’s lock them up too!

But there was one group on whom there was apparently no appetite to be tough — perpetrators of child abuse. Two examples amplify my “dumbfounded-ness” about this fumble. HB 275 would have — simply put — protected students from perpetrators in their schools. And SB 181 would have made sexual extortion a felony. The 2024 General Assembly version of “tough on crime” tackled issues it shouldn’t and fumbled what it should have carried. If you discover that your child’s teacher next year was being investigated for abusing a student this year in another school district and wonder how this could happen, call your legislator and ask that question.

There were other fumbles as well. SB 203, or the Horizons Act, crafted a game-changing early childhood agenda, which would have given child care a sustainable future for kids, families, and local economies. It didn’t happen, and we are actually going back to eligibility levels for the Child Care Assistance Program lower than pre-pandemic rates that will exclude 16,000 children currently receiving the subsidy. Common sense protections for families against unnecessary eviction punishments (HB 71 and SB 34) didn’t happen. HB 199 would have paved the way for birthing centers to offer delivery options for low-risk pregnancies. It didn’t happen.

Now to be fair, along with that record setting number of fumbles, there were some touchdowns. Kinship care; school-based behavioral and mental health supports; beginning steps to address the teacher shortage; and, the “Momnibus Bill” to better serve pregnant moms and their babies are stellar examples of what this legislative body can do when they want to support kids.

There is some hope, however. Only two years after that disastrous 1938 season, the Chicago Bears won the NFL championship and that was just the first of four consecutive trophy runs. That means that maybe — just maybe — our General Assembly can get back on a winning streak for our youngest Kentuckians.

Maybe — just maybe — our lawmakers will not capitulate to well-heeled lobbyists and their out of state “dark money” masters. Maybe — just maybe — our lawmakers will be as tough on people who abuse kids as they are on vulnerable populations. Maybe — just maybe — our lawmakers will go upstream and create real solutions and make real investments on issues ranging from chronic truancy to early childhood education to curbing youth vaping.

George Hallas was the coach and architect who transformed the Bears from a fumble machine into champions. At the time, he asserted, “Nobody who gave their best will ever regret it.” I hope that Senate President Robert Stivers, House Speaker David Osborne, and every member of the General Assembly will ask themselves a simple and profound question, “Did I give my best for Kentucky’s kids in 2024?”

And maybe — just maybe — an honest answer to that self-examination will inspire our lawmakers to become champions in making Kentucky the best place in America to be young.

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