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Meet the Florida think tank pushing for welfare restrictions in Kentucky

J. Tyler Franklin

During a legislative committee meeting in March, members of the Kentucky House of Representatives gathered to debate a controversial welfare reform bill that, just a couple of weeks later, would be signed into law.

Republican Rep. David Meade of District 80 read off a number of statistics related to House Bill 7, emphasizing claims that Kentucky Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients are misusing benefits and that many Medicaid recipients are actually ineligible. The goal of the bill, he said, is to eliminate fraud in the welfare system, reduce dependency on public assistance and get people back to work. 

But when asked where the data he had been reciting came from, Meade said the majority of it was provided by a 2016 University of Kentucky study as well as a third party group — the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) is a conservative think tank based in Naples, Florida that doesn’t disclose its donors and has a history of pushing what many experts have called “junk social science.” Its four main areas of focus are election integrity and welfare, health care and workforce reforms. 

“A national group and high-priced Kentucky lobbyists aggressively shopped a national agenda around slashing public benefits,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocate and a critic of House Bill 7.

Kentucky is especially fertile ground for this kind of policy, but advocates say it's part of a national trend of states attempting to restrict safety net features using a “one size fits all” model seen in legislation developed by groups who often have no stake in the community.  

When Meade acknowledged the fingerprints of a conservative Florida-based think tank upon public policy debate in Kentucky, the moment served to underscore the success that unified conservative messaging is having in altering the delivery of social services in America, one state at a time.

 And while there were significant changes in HB7 and compromises made by the time the bill was passed in April, advocates remain concerned that groups like this will continue to push back against the systems that are meant to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens, children and families. 

“It really seems like we’re trying to punish people for being poor,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville.

Who are they?

The FGA was founded in 2011 by Tarren Bragdon, who left his seat in the state legislature in Maine to pursue policy behind the scenes. 

With the help of its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, the FGA is more powerful today than ever. According to its 2021 annual report, the group had a hand in influencing over 500 reforms across the country. It is currently active in 32 states and through its policy work has gotten 9.5 million people off of public assistance in the last four years.

While the FGA and Opportunity Solutions Project have been outspoken and public about their policy goals, they are less transparent when it comes to their revenue. Registered as a tax-exempt political nonprofit under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, the organization doesn’t have to disclose donors and is considered a “dark money” group. 

While the FGA did not respond to requests for an interview, its latest report shows it brought in $12.9 million last year, a 21% increase from the year prior. 

The FGA is also associated with several other conservative organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the States Policy Network, both of which are known for promoting Republican policy goals at the state level.

The Florida nonprofit has ramped up its presence in Kentucky in recent years, working to advance bills involving restrictions to unemployment, food assistance, cash assistance and health care. 

“Some sanctimonious outside group like the FGA wants to waltz in here with millionaire salaries and tell you that somehow they’re going to do it right,” said Rev. Kent Gilbert, chair of the Kentucky Council of Churches, who spoke in opposition of HB 7 and the FGA last month. 

The Opportunity Solutions Project compensated its Kentucky lobbyists $33,000 in 2021. The largest amount went to McCarthy Strategic Solutions, a government relations firm in Frankfort led by former Kentucky GOP chairman and highest paid lobbyist in the state, John McCarthy.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission currently lists 10 active lobbyists for the group, including Bryan Sunderland, who was deputy chief of staff to former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and is currently serving as FGA’s state government affairs director.

Flawed data

The FGA has long argued that the longer a person receives direct support from the government, the more difficult it becomes for that person to leave dependency and reenter the workforce, producing plenty of infographics, polls and studies that seemingly back that claim.

But the organization has been accused of cherry picking its data, by both Democratic and Republican economists. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities slammed the FGA in 2018 for a report that claimed the rollbacks of public benefits and work requirements in Kansas were helping families thrive, saying their analysis was “fundamentally flawed” and “highly exaggerated.”

And after circulating some polling numbers that suggested almost all Americans supported stricter working requirements, conservative economist Peter Germanis spoke up.

“Work requirements should be based on credible evidence and attention to policy details — the exact opposite of what FGA produces,” Germanis said in a Tweet. “Sad that so many politicians fall for their ‘junk science.’ ”

The same concerns can be applied to the data used in the Kentucky legislative debate that was influenced by the FGA. 

When concerns about the extent of the organization’s involvement in HB7 were brought to sponsor Meade, he said that FGA did provide some data but that most of it came from a study by the University of Kentucky. 

“The talking points about this national organization coming into Kentucky and writing our language is incorrect,” he said. “Most of this data comes from our own home state.”

But according to an analysis by Kentucky Youth Advocate (KYA), even that data wasn’t completely accurate. 

The UK study from 2016 estimated that 73,000 individuals were enrolled in Medicaid who were ineligible due to income. But those figures are based on the American Community Survey, which uses different factors to determine both income and household makeup than the Medicaid eligibility process. KYA’s analysis estimates that the number of ineligible people enrolled in Medicaid was actually less than 30,000.  

The Impact

While the FGA hasn’t had as much success in Kentucky as it has in some other states, it remains persistent. A version of HB7 was shut down by the legislature for three years in a row before it was passed this year, and advocates don’t anticipate the FGA will let up anytime soon.

“I don't think they're getting ready to tuck tail and run back to Florida,” Brooks said. “As we speak, they may be working in Frankfort right now. So I think we've got to buckle up and prepare.”

In the face of criticism, HB7 was scaled back significantly from its original version.  Penalties for fraud in the original version were reduced, reporting requirements were changed and a costly requirement to reroute cash-assistance programs through EBT cards was deleted.

While the FGA might have wanted more out of HB7, advocates and other legislators say the impact of the bill is still significant. 

“This bill creates barriers, and hurdles and trip wires and red tape for our neighbors who are trying to get food and medicine,” said Rep, Josie Raymond of Louisville. “It closes doors in the faces of the most vulnerable.”

Under the new law, the state will require SNAP recipients to report changes of income every quarter, rather than every six months, and will also implement work requirements for some Medicaid recipients. Both of these measures are similar to the language that is displayed on the FGA’s website. 

HB 7 also creates a three-strike ban that could ban people from accessing assistance for up to one year for making too many mistakes or selling benefits from their EBT card.

“The only way you will lose SNAP benefits is if you are breaking the law,” Meade said. “And the only way you lose Medicaid is if you are an able-bodied person at home with no dependents who is not willing to participate in the work requirements.”

But according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, SNAP fraud is not all that common — making up less than 2% of cases. But many more people, they said, are suspected of trafficking their card based on mistakes that are easy to make while using it, such as entering the wrong pin number too many times, shopping at the same store more than once in a day or having a purchase ending in a whole-dollar amount.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services also testified that the legislation would add costly layers of administrative work for a staff that is already overloaded. 

For some, the passage of HB7 and the increase in the FGA’s influence over Kentucky legislation signifies a harsh reality.

“This bill reveals a bias against the poor,” Raymond said. “By requiring more paperwork and making people jump through more hoops, we’re bringing suspicion to every interaction with the state that could empower them, rather than humiliate them.”

Jasmine Demers is an investigative reporter for LPM covering youth and social services. She is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email Jasmine at jdemers@lpm.org.

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