FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A politically divisive proposal to revamp Kentucky’s public assistance programs and tighten enforcement to prevent fraud won passage in the Republican-run state House on Friday.
In a state plagued by pockets of high poverty rates that can span generations, the sweeping measure aims to shift more people off public assistance and into the workforce. But Democratic lawmakers objected to portions of the bill they described as punitive against the working poor.
The measure cleared the House on a 58-32 vote after a long debate. It now heads to the GOP-dominated Senate. The bill’s lead sponsors are the House’s top two Republican leaders — House Speaker David Osborne and House Speaker Pro Tem David Meade.
During the debate, Meade portrayed the bill as providing a “good balance” between compassion for those in need of public assistance and accountability to prevent abuse.
“It’s time to do something different, hold people accountable,” said Republican Rep. Melinda Gibbons Prunty.
Opponents countered that low fraud rates in public assistance programs wouldn’t justify the investment of millions of dollars in additional funds to bolster oversight and enforcement.
“We need to focus on the incentives and not on the punishment,” said Democratic Rep. Maria Sorolis.
Meade said it’s “just not imaginable” that all the actual fraud in public assistance programs is being uncovered.
The bill would create a single electronic benefit card for people on assistance. It would ban people from assistance for repeated rule violations.
It also would create a new state health insurance plan for low-income people who make too much to qualify for Medicaid. That proposal seeks to resolve situations that discourage people from working longer hours or getting better-paying jobs because they can then lose Medicaid coverage.
Republican Rep. Steve Sheldon said the bill would help people he has known who “felt trapped” by those income requirements.
Other opponents said the state, due to its limited resources, hasn’t tackled the underlying problems causing poverty.
“Our state is full of people needing our care, needing food, needing health care, needing support,” said Democratic Rep. Lisa Willner.
The bill is the result of an ambitious, year-long effort by House Republicans to make changes to public assistance programs. Their legislation failed last year, and House leaders then formed a task force that met for months and heard extensive testimony about public assistance programs.
The new measure received the House vote a day after it cleared a committee. That timetable drew objections from some lawmakers.
“Do we want it fast, or do we want it right?” Democratic Rep. Joe Graviss asked. “The goals of the bill are excellent. They way we’re doing it is not.”