How conservative Florida groups pushed controversial child labor, SNAP bills in Kentucky (2024)

Rebecca GrapevineLouisville Courier Journal

FRANKFORT — Five Republican state representatives traveled at taxpayer expense to Nashville on Dec. 6 to attend an event hosted by a right-wing Florida think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability.

Titled “In the Fight Forum,” there is no trace of the event on the internet, and the Foundation did not respond to requests for details.

Less than two months later, in late January, one of the lawmakers who attended, Rep. Wade Williams, R-Earlington, introduced a bill that would stiffen eligibility requirements for Kentucky’s food stamps program, a policy priority for the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The Foundation and its lobbying group, the Opportunity Solutions Project, influence Kentucky lawmakers by hosting events like the one in Nashville, hiring prominent Frankfort lobbyists, providing staffers to testify on bills, and conducting polls that lawmakers can cite to show support for bills.

That’s a playbook replicated in statehouses across the country, where the Opportunity Solutions Project has pushed bills aimed at rolling back child labor restrictions.

In Kentucky, of ten groups listed as lobbying on a child labor bill on the Legislative Ethics Commission website, the Opportunity Solutions Project appears to be the sole group supporting the measure. That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Phillip Pratt, R-Georgetown, is featured prominently on the Foundation’s Kentucky webpage.

The groups’ tactics, while not illegal, could be problematic, an expert told The Courier Journal.

“From a democracy angle, I do think it is tricky,” said Jason Seawright, a professor of political science at Northwestern University.

“On the one hand, sure, they're expressing political voice and that's what all citizens get to do. But on the other hand, they're doing it in a way that's way more organized and professionalized and has a substantially larger budget than most of us have,” Seawright said.“The fact that they’re doing that in ways that are not transparent and not public is a concern.”

Local and national advocates are also concerned.

“This is not just some kind of organic, grassroots effort. It's a much more … deliberative, pernicious effort by big business,” said Aaron Scherb, the senior director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, a national watchdog group.

“It’s disturbing to see such radical ideas given weight in the legislature,” said Jason Bailey, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “It’s even more concerning when we learn they are coming from an out-of-state, billionaire-funded group that only flies in to pass bills and then flies out while the rest of us have to live with the consequences.”

The Foundation for Government Accountability and the Opportunity Solutions Project did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls requesting comment.

What are the Opportunity Solutions Project and the Foundation for Government Accountability?

The Opportunity Solutions Project has a Tallahassee, Florida, mailing address and the Foundation for Government Accountability is based in Naples, Florida.The two groups share leaders and staff members, according to their websites.

The conservative nonprofits’ priorities include rolling back federal and state regulations, adding work requirements to welfare programs, opposing DEI efforts, and promoting conservative election law reforms.

In 2022, the Foundation brought in close to $14 million in contributions and grants, according to a tax filing. It does not disclose donor names.

However,research from CNNfound the group's top donor is the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation. Uihlein made his fortune via the shipping and packaging material company Uline. He and his wife are major conservative donors and have funded election denial efforts.

Other donors include conservative megadonors like The 85 Fund, which is backed by Federalist Society co-chairman Leonard Leo, dark money groupDonors Trust, andgroups linked to climate-change denialismlike the Sarah Scaife Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

“We give lawmakers a menu featuring more than 150 reforms and partner with them to create new ideas and comprehensive reform agendas,” the Foundation’s website states.

The Foundation’s “secret sauce” includes providing “policy and legal expertise” and “polling, message testing and focus group data” to policymakers, the website says.That has resulted in 916 “state-based wins” since its founding in 2011.

The Opportunity Solutions Project began lobbying in Kentucky in 2017, according to records from the Legislative Ethics Commission. It has spent nearly $230,000 since then, mostly on compensation for lobbyists.

Since the start of 2023, the group has spent close to $20,000 on lobbying here. It currently employs seven lobbyists, all from McCarthy Strategic Solutions. Among them is the firm’s founder, John McCarthy, a former state Republican Party chairman who is, according to his bio, the "most experienced and connected Republican lobbyist in Kentucky."

House Bill 255: Child labor bill

Pratt, the Republican representative from Georgetown, sponsored a bill aimed at rolling back Kentucky’s child labor regulations. House Bill 255 would repeal Kentucky’s child labor statute and replace it with more limited regulations.

The Opportunity Solutions Project and the Foundation for Government Accountability have pushed similar child labor bills in states across the country.In Kentucky, the Project appears to be the only group in support of the bill.

Pratt did not respond to questions about where he got the idea for the bill or his relationship with the groups, but he appears to have ties to them. A video on the Foundation’s website shows Pratt sitting in the Kentucky House while explaining his support for the REINS Act, a federal bill that would require Congress to approve executive agencies’ regulations.

The Opportunity Solution Project’s website includes a set of talking points titled “What does Kentucky’s teenage work bill actually do?”

“This bill has nothing to do with safety standards and everything to do with eliminating excessive state regulations,” thewebsite states.

Thirty states have introduced bills to weaken child labor laws since 2021, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning thinktank.

In Indiana, the legislature this year passed, and the governor signed, two bills that, together, are similar to Kentucky’s HB 255. A Foundation for Government Accountability staffer testified in support of one of the bills.

More: Enjoy lunch breaks? How you could lose rest benefits if KY Bill 500 is passed in Kentucky.

The Foundation for Government Accountability successfully pushed similar laws in Arkansas and Iowa. Emails between Foundation staffers and legislators suggest the group played a key role in Iowa, according to a Washington Post investigation. In Kentucky, a 2021 open records law reform made it much more difficult to obtain lawmakers’ emails.

The two Florida groups also sponsor polls through their in-house Center for Excellence in Polling.

For example,a recent pollfound that 52% of Kentucky voters support state work restrictions for high school students that “align with, without being stricter than, federal law.”

The poll was based on 435 likely Kentucky voters. Such surveys typically need at least 1,000 subjects to be valid, political science professor Seawright said.

The Kentucky child labor bill has House approval and now needs a Senate floor vote to advance.

HB 367: Food stamps

The Opportunity Solutions Project also supported House Bill 367, a controversial measure that would stiffen eligibility requirements for the food stamp (SNAP) program.

The bill’s sponsor, Williams, acknowledged he worked with the Foundation for Government Accountability on the bill but did not answer questions about his attendance at the December Nashville event.

“I worked with a number of groups on several pieces of legislation, including the Foundation for Government Accountability in an effort to learn what has and hasn’t worked in other states," Williams told The Courier Journal. "As a legislator, I research and work with stakeholders within and outside of the state to develop the best final product possible.”

The Foundation for Government Accountability also sent staffers to Frankfort to testify in support of the bill.Scott Centorino, who works for both groups, sat alongside Williams during a House committee hearing.

Floyd Buford, who also works for both groups, joined Williams at a February Senate hearing. In March, HB 367 hit a roadblock.

Two Republican Senators cited out-of-state support for the bill as part of their reason for breaking party ranks and voting against it.

“I am concerned about the out-of-state folks that came to visit with me in my office and the comments that were discussed,” said Sen. Brandon Storm, R-London.

“I don’t think necessarily that the national group that comes in has the same level of intention for the people of the Commonwealth,” said Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray.

It’s unlikely that the bill will be revived before the session ends.

HB 236: Anti-ESG Bill

"Fighting the ESG agenda" is another of the Florida groups' policy priorities, and last year the Opportunity Solutions Project lobbied in favor ofHouse Bill 236. That bill's main sponsor was Rep. Scott Sharp, R-Ashland, who also attended the Dec. 6 Foundation for Government Accountability event in Nashville.

Sharp did not respond to questions about his relationship with the two Florida groups.

The bill — which Gov. Andy Beshear signed into law — prohibited the state's public pension systems from considering environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in investment decisions.

The Foundation for Government Accountability has pushed Missouri and other states to adopt a similar rule around pension investments, aCNN investigation found.

Reach Rebecca Grapevine at or follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @RebGrapevine.

How conservative Florida groups pushed controversial child labor, SNAP bills in Kentucky (2024)
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