In the last several months, Kentuckians have had to contend with a health and economic crisis unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Over 50% of working Kentuckians have filed for unemployment since March. More than 40% of renters have faced the threat of eviction. Half of Kentucky families have lost income. Several hundred Kentuckians have died from COVID-19, and there is no sign this pandemic or economic recession will end soon.
These numbers were not inevitable. They reflect the inept leadership of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who went on a 25-day vacation without taking the action needed to address the devastating consequences of this pandemic.
Leaders don’t leave.
The unfortunate truth, though, is that McConnell abandoned our state a long time ago. Even before the pandemic began, Kentucky was on an economic tightrope. As hard as so many tried, too many Kentuckians have been unable to build a better life for themselves and their children because of Washington’s corruption and its failure to provide the basic building blocks every American needs: equal access to education, health care and economic opportunity.
Kentucky powered and fed our country for decades, getting us through two world wars and keeping millions of Americans’ lights on, and it remains full of promise today.
But we cannot just build back to normal, because normal is what got us here in the first place. Our state can and must come back from this virus stronger than ever and reemerge as a leader in our country and the world.
To rebuild stronger, we must:
- Immediately address the economic pain caused by this pandemic and McConnell’s inaction so that Kentucky families can keep a roof overhead and food on the table.
- Make sure every Kentuckian has access to affordable health care and prescription drugs, regardless of employment status or income level.
- Ensure good-paying jobs are available across a variety of sectors around the commonwealth.
- Combat intergenerational poverty, address racial and economic inequities, and provide adequate educational opportunities so that our young people have the fair shot they deserve.
- Fix the corruption McConnell has created and benefited from and reform Washington so that our federal government actually works for everyday Kentuckians and not special interests and big corporations.
The pain of this pandemic is not going away any time soon. Even after a vaccine is created, the economic consequences of this crisis will be felt for years. To make sure our families and economy are strong we need to:
- Guarantee that every single Kentuckian has health care and that their coverage is not a financial burden by offering a subsidized public option for the duration of the pandemic. Families below 200% of the federal poverty line and anyone who loses their employer-based insurance will be eligible for automatic enrollment. There would be no deductibles for anyone.
- Provide relief to our families through continued access to an unemployment insurance bonus that is protected until the unemployment rate falls, a moratorium on evictions, a 15% increase in SNAP benefits and rent support.
- Protect Main Street by offering financial support for state and local governments. If monetary aid is not provided now and into the future, our teachers, firefighters and police officers will be at risk of losing their jobs and pensions, basic services will be cut back, and students will be hurt.
- Ensure schools have the funding, testing and equipment needed to re-open. Parents and educators alike are struggling to navigate this crisis. McConnell has had $1.3 billion for Kentucky schools sitting on his desk for months. Until this pandemic is over, schools will need help providing technology to students, making infrastructural changes to keep students safe and testing-and-tracing their populations. Congress must provide this support now and into the foreseeable future.
- Support small businesses through continued access to PPP loans by ensuring that every qualifying small business gets relief, instead of forcing businesses to compete against one another. Moving forward, we must also increase the percent of federal contracts that go to small businesses.
- Help the restaurant industry and its workers, which have been particularly hard hit during this crisis. We need to pass the bipartisan FEED Act to provide funds for local and state governments to pay restaurants to provide food to those going hungry, and we must pass the bipartisan RESTAURANTS Act that will provide restaurants with the funds needed to weather the pandemic.
No Kentuckian or American should be without the health care or prescriptions they need to survive. McConnell has tried at least 19 times to weaken or end the Affordable Care Act, which enabled many Kentuckians—especially those with pre-existing conditions—to get affordable health insurance for the first time. The more than 350,000 Kentuckians who gained insurance through the ACA would have been hit even harder by the pandemic without this coverage. Here’s how to improve our health care system so that health crisis or not, no one will be without the coverage they need:
- Create a public option and lower the Medicare buy-in age to 55 to ensure every Kentuckian has access to affordable health care regardless of employment status. We must allow people to automatically enroll in the public option when they lose their jobs or their income falls below 200% of the federal poverty line and ensure that anyone, including employed Kentuckians, can opt into this public option if they wish. Furthermore, we must stop “surprise billing” for all Americans so that families don’t get hit with massive, unexpected expenses.
- Lower prescription drug prices and limit the power of Big Pharma so Kentuckians no longer have to pay over $2,000 per year on average for their prescriptions. We have to limit price increases for all prescription drugs to inflation and allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
- Close the racial health gap through investment in community health centers, increased access to telemedicine, and mitigation of environmental and infrastructural hazards that disportionately harm minority communities.
- Address the opioid crisis head on through increased funds for community-led efforts to prevent overdoses, which will require our leaders to hold Big Pharma companies accountable for flooding Kentucky with opioids. We must also expand the use of drug courts and stop resorting to incarceration as our primary way of handling drug-only criminal offenses.
We must make sure our workers are getting their fair share that, for years, big corporations and greedy special interests groups have denied them. Here’s what we need to do:
- Rebuild our infrastructure. If we want to power our country, we need to upgrade Kentucky’s aging and broken-down infrastructure to become a hub of commerce. We also need to make sure every family has clean water because access to economic opportunity depends on good health.
- Upgrade our broadband. Our small businesses can’t compete and our students can’t learn if they can’t get online. We need federal investment in our broadband similar to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which was created to bring electricity to the almost 90% of America’s farms who did not have access to it. Today, we need broadband connecting our whole country so that every Kentuckian can meet the demands of the economy. The Rural Electrification Act created a significant number of jobs, and a similar investment to ensure that high-speed broadband is available in all communities would do the same.
- Turn our country—and state—into a world leader in manufacturing again. People should Buy American, here and across the world. During the 36 years Mitch has spent in Washington, big corporations and special interests have secured loopholes that redirect taxpayer dollars to foreign companies. We need to return those dollars to American companies, and invest in helping small- and medium-sized factories so they have the funds to modernize their infrastructure. We also need to ensure trade deals work for American workers and not just for the bottom lines of big corporations.
- Put workers before CEOs and provide better wages and labor protections. In 1965, the average CEO’s compensation was 21.1 times the compensation of their average worker. In 1993, it was roughly 109 times more. And in 2019, the average CEO’s compensation was 320 times more than their average worker’s. Nobody should have to work three jobs to make ends meet while company CEOs bring home multi-million dollar bonuses. We have to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and guarantee that workers have the right to unionize and collectively bargain.
- Pass the RECLAIM Act. This law would provide Kentucky with $100 million to clean up abandoned coal mines for economic development purposes. It would bring jobs, better health and economic opportunity to our coal communities to whom we all owe a massive debt.
- Invest in minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. Out of more than 48,000 businesses in Kentucky that received PPP loans, only 104 reported having a Black owner. We need to address racial inequities in our business community through targeted federal funds and with student loan forgiveness for minority college graduates who start businesses.
- Build a Civilian Conservation Corps for the 21st century. Our state has a lot of work to do in order to repair our roads, modernize our energy grid, preserve our forests and clean up contaminated environmental sites. We also need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with a robust program of testing-and-tracing and measures to ensure a healthy environment in our schools and adequate child care for working parents. During the Great Depression, over 80,000 Kentuckians worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today, we need to create a new force that will rebuild our state.
At the same time we work to address the immediate pain of this pandemic and ensure every worker gets a fair shake, we also need to think about how to give every young person in Kentucky a fighting chance at a better future. Here are some ways to do that:
- Guarantee universal pre-K or Head Start. For children, every dollar invested in high-quality early education pays for itself in lifetime benefits for their careers and our communities. We should provide all three- and four-year-olds with access to high-quality pre-kindergarten or Head Start programs in order to lay a strong foundation for children and save parents thousands of dollars each year on child care.
- Provide federal grants to help our poorest school districts invest in infrastructure updates. Every child should go to school with a working HVAC system, clean water, functioning internet and high-quality computers. Updated HVAC systems are one of our best defenses against this virus, and when students cannot attend school in person, the technology they have is even more essential than ever.
- Close the $23 billion dollar funding gap between majority white and majority non-white schools. Equal opportunity will not be possible until every school has the funds it needs to serve its students.
- Make college affordable with a national service plan. A voluntary, paid National Service Program that allows students to earn a debt-free higher education in exchange for service would improve our civil society and allow millions more Americans to attend college. The program would give young Americans the opportunity to serve their country for one or more years and meet our nation’s most pressing needs, by filling teacher and health care shortages in high-need schools and rural health clinics, for example. In exchange, they would receive an educational benefit equal to up to four years of average in-state tuition where their college is located.
- Expand apprenticeship and trade schools to cultivate the skills of all Kentuckians. We need to scale up work-based learning programs through registered apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeship programs and other labor-management training programs. These training schools can lead to the types of well-paying jobs that build a better life for people.
- Increase home ownership for Black and Latino families through increased access to financial tools such as postal banking and tax incentives for first time home owners.
The reality is, we have been slow as a country to respond to this crisis because of the rampant corruption in Washington. McConnell is the architect of the dysfunction in Washington. During this pandemic alone, lobbyists have dispatched 149 former McConnell aides to fight for what special interests want in legislation related to our economic recovery. If we are going to rebuild the economy and be better prepared for future crises, we need to make sure our officials work for the people and not for donors, lobbyists and special interests. To tear down the swamp, we have to:
- Implement term limits so that elected officials are forced to think more about their constituents than their careers.
- Expand voting rights through increased federal financial support for voting access during the pandemic and afterward. We also need to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act to restore voting rights protections and H.R. 1. to restore former felons’ voting rights and make voter registration easier for every American.
- Get big money out of politics. We need to immediately limit unrestricted dark money and increase transparency by requiring the disclosure of donors to any organization that spends money in elections, and we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
- End lobbyists’ stranglehold on our government by closing the “revolving door” between elected officials, their staff and lobbying groups, which allows special interests to use political connections to buy the power of elected officials.
- Hold our public officials accountable
by establishing a Commission on Federal Ethics to more effectively enforce federal ethics law.
- Insulate public health appointees from political pressure. The chair of the Federal Reserve does not serve “at the pleasure of the president”; he or she cannot be removed until their term expires. This system gives Americans confidence that the decisions that person makes and the information they share are nonpartisan. We need to adopt a national system that ensures senior public health appointees also do not serve at the pleasure of the executive. Public health officials must not fear reprisal if they disagree with those who initially appointed them, and they must have dependable, real-time data that the American public can trust. Our health is too precious for it to be exposed to the whims and polarization of our political system.