Sweeping legislation to tighten rules for public assistance with the goal of steering more people into self-sufficiency sped through the Republican-dominated Kentucky House on Thursday.
The measure — sponsored by the chamber’s top two leaders — emerged for House action shortly after a revised version was approved in committee. After a bitter partisan debate, the proposal won 71-26 House passage, sending the legislation to the GOP-led Senate.
The bill’s opponents warned it would punish low-income Kentuckians in a state plagued by pockets of poverty and stubbornly high unemployment. One urban Democratic lawmaker cited statistics showing the importance of public food and health care assistance in rural, GOP-leaning areas.
House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade countered that critics were “fear mongering.” Supporters said that people in need — including children, the elderly and single moms — would not lose benefits.
“The only way that you would lose benefits in this bill is that you were either doing something that is illegal or you are an able-bodied adult with no dependents that is not willing to participate in the work programs,” Meade said.
Meade is sponsoring the bill along with House Speaker David Osborne.
The bill represents a long-running priority among Republican lawmakers to tighten rules for public assistance. The goal, they said, is to wean more Kentuckians off such programs as Medicaid and food stamps and into jobs that make them self-sufficient.
But the intent is to keep the social safety net in place for those who need it, they said.
Republican Rep. Ryan Dotson called the bill a “great first step” in tightening controls over public benefit programs. The bill calls for a new legislative oversight committee over benefit programs.
“I think this commonwealth is long overdue with welfare reform and purging those out of the system that really don’t need to be there,” he said during the committee review of the bill. “We’re going to find out over the long haul that some people are hiding out in the system.”
Democratic Rep. Tom Burch bluntly warned that the bill would hurt people across Kentucky.
Critics said the new rules would cause hardships for people who need the benefits. Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian criticized the bill as “trying to punish people for being poor.”
The bill would add new rules for such benefits as food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance for the poor, while standards for food stamp eligibility would be tightened. In some cases, “able-bodied” Medicaid recipients would be required to participate in 80 hours per month of “community engagement” activities, such as jobs or volunteering.
State Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander told the committee on Thursday that the agency would need to hire hundreds of additional workers to oversee the new rules. The cabinet’s current workforce is already “stretched to the limit,” he said.