FRANKFORT – In one sense, Kentucky’s budget doesn’t change much from year to year. A little more than half of every state dollar, for example, goes to our schools, colleges and universities. Another fourth is dedicated to Medicaid and other health services, a little more than a tenth is spent on criminal justice and the final dime goes to everything else.
While there is relatively little discussion in the General Assembly about those ratios, there is often lively debate on the best way to move each major area forward.
The Kentucky House staked out its priorities last week, when the chamber voted for a two-year budget that differs in key ways from what Governor Bevin proposed in late January.
Before detailing where they contrast, it is worth pointing out that there is some broad agreement. Both budgets feature some significant reductions to state government so we can set aside much more money for our public retirement systems, which are facing long-term liabilities that could be catastrophic in a decade or two if we don’t take action now. Both budgets also exempt the classroom, Medicaid and other critical services.
The main area where our chamber’s spending plan diverges from the governor’s is education. If we maintained the 9 percent cuts he recommends, we would see things like our family resource and youth services centers’ funding drop to levels not seen since 2002. There would be fewer textbooks and less professional development.
Our colleges and universities would suffer as well, leading to higher tuition and more student loan debt. One university president called the cuts “draconian,” and another recently announced staff furloughs over spring break. Because nearly every other state is investing more in higher education, we risk losing ground to them if we continue going in the other direction.
All told, the House budget would restore about $300 million more to education at all levels. In addition, we also back an innovative program that would enable graduating high school seniors to attend a KCTCS school the following fall without paying any tuition, after taking other scholarships and grants into account.
This Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship Program could help as many as 3,200 students, starting in August, and while it is designed to be used during the first two years of college, it undoubtedly would serve as a foundation for those wanting to go on and obtain their four-year degree.
In addition to this, the House budget also puts more lottery money toward the College Access Program and Kentucky Tuition Grant, which provide critical financial aid and also complement KEES, the other lottery-based program that, in this case, high school students earn with good grades.
As for our public pensions, the House agrees with the governor when it comes to fully funding the state employee’s retirement system while adding nearly $90 million more. As for the teacher retirement system, we believe we can fully fund it as well for the next two years rather than just go two-thirds of the way as the governor recommends. If we don’t do this, that retirement system will have to continue selling off assets to meet its monthly costs.
Our coal-counties would benefit under the House budget because it kicks off a four-year plan to return all coal severance dollars to them, and our middle-income families would be helped by increasing preschool eligibility from 160 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent. There is also more money for childcare assistance.
Within criminal justice, we agree with the governor that our Kentucky State Police troopers deserve a raise and that the training stipend many first responders receive should rise as well and be given to more qualified groups of law enforcement. We also support providing more money for reducing the backlog of untested rape kits.
Although the budget and other related bills were the high point in the House last week, we also voted for several other bills that would have a positive impact on the state if enacted.
With House Bill 290, Kentuckians would be able to vote early without an excuse, something nearly 40 other states already allow. This move would almost certainly ease long lines on election day and hopefully increase voter turnout.
House Bill 367 would give a financial break to veteran-owned businesses when it comes to the fees they have to pay when filing legal documents with the Secretary of State, and House Bill 563 would increase state oversight regarding the disposal of low-level, naturally occurring radioactive waste generated by oil and natural gas drilling. This problem came to light after two Eastern Kentucky landfills were found to have improperly handled this waste.
This week is the last full one during the legislative session, so only a handful of days remain to resolve the budget and the other major issues before us. By this time next week, our work will largely be done. After a 10-day veto recess, we will return in mid-April for the session’s final two days.
It is not too late to let me know your views, however. If you would like to contact me, my address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.