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Kentucky Senate panel advances bill to track disaster relief funds

Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield
Kentucky Senate Republican Facebook page
Kentucky state Sen. Whitney Westerfield

A bill currently being considered by state lawmakers could provide them with oversight into disaster relief funds, like the ones Gov. Andy Beshear created to help Kentuckians recover from the 2021 tornadoes and last year’s flooding.

Senate Bill 99 – which passed out of the Kentucky Senate Appropriations & Revenue committee 8-0 Wednesday – calls for an annual report of relief funds created by state agencies and officials. It also seeks information on guidelines used to determine eligibility and allocate relief funds.

State GOP leaders, including bill sponsor Whitney Westerfield of Christian County, say this push comes after reports that some checks supported by the tornado relief fund went to people unaffected by the disaster. The west Kentucky Republican said his bill asks “basic and fundamental questions” about these relief funds.

“I think it’s fair for us to just ask questions about where the money has gone, how they made decisions about how to distribute money," Westerfield said to the committee. “There's still people in the west and the east who have suffered from these natural disasters that haven't gotten a $1,000 check and could use it.”

Westerfield questioned the constitutionality of the funds, “well intended as they were, useful as they are” are unconstitutional because the Kentucky General Assembly didn’t appropriate and disburse the monies. The west Kentucky senator added language to the bill that should aid in the determination of the funds’ constitutionality by June 30.

The Associated Press recently reported that State Treasurer Allison Ball’s office had stopped payment on nearly 200 checks from the fund late last year following Beshear’s announcement that more than $10 million from the relief fund would be disbursed in $1,000 increments.

Northern Kentucky Republican Sen. Christian McDaniel chairs the Appropriations & Revenue Committee. He derided the fund during the committee meeting, saying officials with the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet – the state agency that disbursed the funds – are in the dark when it comes to where all of the money wound up.

“They don't really know where the money is right now and they don't know how it's been disbursed,” McDaniel said. “This just appears to be a mess of epic proportions."

Beshear created the Team West Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund and the Team East Kentucky Flood Relief Fund following disasters that impacted large swaths of the state – a devastating tornado outbreak in December 2021 that impacted more than 16 counties and killed nearly 100 people and historic flooding that inundated portions of eastern Kentucky last summer, killing dozens.

The funds altogether raised more than $65 million in private donations to help Kentuckians on both ends of the state recover from these devastating natural disasters. These funds helped to pay funeral expenses of storm victims and provide relief for affected homeowners, renters and farmers.

Beshear defended the fund and its transparency during a Team Kentucky update last week.

The Democratic governor broke down the reasons that many of the checks were stopped. He said 19 checks were flagged for possible fraud, 26 were returned with explanations that didn’t indicate fraud, and many others were stopped because recipients had died, they had the wrong name or they weren’t received in a timely manner. Beshear also said the relief fund had “an error or a fraud rate that is at or below 1%,” which compares favorably to similar publicly managed funds across the U.S.

Beshear said the fund is already an “open book,” and cautioned lawmakers to avoid actions that could jeopardize future relief funds or their flexibility.

"Everything here is a public record,” the governor said. “I’ve announced every single thing that we’ve done with it. It’s been on the website.”

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