Sen. Whitney Westerfield proposes sweeping new supports for Kentucky families

Published 12:50 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

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By Deborah Yetter

Kentucky Lantern

A Republican legislator from Western Kentucky has filed a sweeping measure to provide more support for families through a major financial boost to child care, education, housing, health services and other measures aimed at pregnant individuals and women with children.

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Senate Bill 34, filed Tuesday by Sen. Whitney Westerfield, carries a $551 million price tag in state spending over the next two years with an influx of cash into services such as child care, food assistance, college tuition, housing and other needs. It would draw another estimated $112 million in federal funds.

Westerfield, a staunch opponent of abortion, said that now that the procedure is essentially banned in Kentucky, lawmakers must address ways to meet the needs of women who continue their pregnancies as well as encouraging them to do so.

Abortion is outlawed in Kentucky, except in rare, life-threatening circumstances, under laws that took effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 struck down Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established abortion as a constitutional right.

“We’re 50 years too late in doing this,” said Westerfield, of Fruit Hill in Christian County. “We need to do a whole lot more investing in the lives of the women involved and the children involved.” Westerfield, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was elected to the legislature in 2012 and is not seeking reelection this year.

The breathtaking price tag of the measure may give some lawmakers pause in the General Assembly where Republican supermajorities control both the House and Senate, Westerfield  acknowledged.

But he hopes it will garner support among legislators who have supported Kentucky’s abortion ban and consider themselves “pro-life.”

“I think there’s broad support for doing something like this,” said Westerfield, who has described SB 34 as a “pro-life” measure on his website. “I just don’t know if some of this or all of this is what they want to spend the money on.”

With Kentucky sitting on a record budget surplus of $3.7 billion, Republican House Speaker David Osborne has expressed a willingness to dip into some of the money, also known as the “rainy day” fund, as lawmakers fashion a new, two-year budget.

At the same time, Republican lawmakers have called for spending restraint to position Kentucky to afford a third cut in the state income tax in future years as part of their plan to eventually eliminate Kentucky’s income tax.

Still, Sheila Schuster, who has been advocating in Frankfort for human needs for nearly five decades, said the time is now if lawmakers want to do something meaningful for low-income or disadvantaged Kentuckians.

“I’ve been asking legislators for money for 46 years,” Schuster said. “Most of the time they would say, ‘We just don’t have the money.’ Truly, they cannot say that this session.”

Schuster said she is delighted with Westerfield’s bill but she acknowledges it will need some help amid other competing demands in the 2024 legislative session.

“I think it will be an uphill battle but it’s good, sound policy,” she said. “I’m going to say we have a fighting chance. We know they have the money.”

Among provisions of SB 34:’

  • $495 million in child care assistance for low-income parents, the highest-ticket item of the bill. The lack of affordable child care and the decline in the industry since the COVID pandemic has been identified as a growing crisis in Kentucky, one that prevents parents with young children from working.
  • Free tuition at Kentucky’s public four and two-year post-secondary institutions for students who meet entrance requirements, are pregnant or have a child under 18 and who have incomes at or below 150% of the federal poverty level.
  • Expanding health insurance enrollment options for pregnant individuals and mandating inpatient hospital care for the mother and newborn for 48 hours for a regular delivery and 96 hours after a Cesarean delivery.
  • Requiring Medicaid to cover lactation services and breastfeeding resources in order to encourage breastfeeding. Medicaid, the federal state health plan for low-income individuals, covers around half of all births in Kentucky.
  • Improving access to healthy foods through local farmers markets, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, program.
  • Pumping about $90 million over the next two years for Medicaid “waiver” services for individuals with disabilities in an effort to start reducing the long waiting lists that many Kentuckians face in getting help with therapy, housing, supervision and other aspects of daily life.

Westerfield said he was shocked to discover such individuals, most adults living with aging parents or other caregivers, face years-long waiting lists for services to which they are entitled.

“I’m ashamed that I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that we have let that happen.”

Schuster said money to cut those waiting lists that number in the thousands could make a huge difference for many disabled individuals and their families.

“I think it’s exciting,” she said. “To see it in a bill is pretty damn exciting for people who have been on a waiting list for umpteen years.”

Westerfield said he plans to request a committee hearing on the bill as soon as possible.

In response to questions about Westerfield’s proposals, Senate President Robert Stivers told reporters late Wednesday that he had “yet to see the bill” and spoke about victims of rape and incest.

“Those individuals adversely impacted — the trauma, everything around that, surrounding it. That instance, we need to give it as much support to them as possible. And so mental health, access to preventative health care. I’m not getting into that abortion issue, but into health care to make sure the mother has everything they need for health care is available. Those are the types of things I think we will hear discussion,” Stivers said.