FRANKFORT – When it comes to setting the state’s priorities, no other legislation plays a bigger role than the state’s budget. It funds our schools, keeps us safe, maintains our highways, strengthens our collective health and affects our lives in countless other ways.
With that in mind, Governor Bevin will visit the House chamber on Tuesday this week to present his vision for state spending during the next two fiscal years. As my House and Senate colleagues and I wait to see what that plan contains, I thought it would be good to take a closer nuts-and-bolts look at the process while also reviewing the challenges we face at a time where the gap between what we need and what we can afford is the widest it has ever been.
If you count every tax dollar that flows through state government – a figure that includes federal sources as well as such restricted funds as college tuition – the two-year total for the 2016-18 budget cycle amounts to about $74 billion.
However, most of the General Assembly’s focus on the budget centers on two key sections funded by your state tax dollars: The General Fund and the Road Fund. The former is roughly $11 billion a year, while the latter amounts to about $1.5 billion annually. Together, these two areas largely guide how the remaining federal and restricted funds are spent.
In breaking the General Fund down further, about 45 percent goes to elementary and secondary education; 10 percent is sent to our public colleges and universities; 17 percent represents our contribution to Medicaid; 11 percent covers criminal justice; seven percent goes to human services; and the remainder covers everything else, from our state parks to environmental protection.
The General Fund’s revenues come from a variety of sources, but the individual income tax and sales and use taxes account for about three-fourths of the total.
One of the relatively smaller sources, coal severance, has taken a particularly hard hit in the past half-dozen years. It brought in almost $300 million in 2012, but that dropped to $100 million last year, and it is on track to decline to $65 million by 2020. As tough as that is for the state, it has been devastating for many of our coal-producing counties.
It is no understatement to say the loss of coal severance dollars and the Great Recession have been a one-two punch for the state. Numerous budget cuts over the past decade are nearing $2 billion overall, and rising payments necessary to fund our public retirement systems have had an impact as well.
In many ways, and through a series of reforms in such areas as Medicaid and criminal justice, we have been able to do more with less, but there is near-universal agreement in the Capitol that maintaining that goal during the upcoming budget will be the toughest task legislators have faced in modern times.
The good news is that moderate growth is forecast for the budget cycle, and state officials announced on Wednesday last week that revenues in December were 11.2 percent greater than they were that month a year earlier. A shortfall we thought would be $200 million or greater in August is now $40 million above budget projections for the current fiscal year.
Once the governor and the leaders of the Legislative and Judicial branches present their budgets, the House will spend six to eight weeks dissecting them, to see what changes we may like to make. The Senate will then do the same, and a compromise should be ready for a final vote by the end of March. After becoming law, these budgets will take effect in July.
My goal in this process is to make sure we take prudent steps to pay our bills without putting an undue burden on our children or our public retirees. If Governor Bevin proposes severe cuts affecting those groups, we will need to take a very close look at whether this is truly necessary. That could include looking at tax reform, to see if the numerous incentive and credit programs we have authorized over the years are still promoting economic development or should be phased out.
I will cover those issues more in-depth next week, but for now, I want to thank those of you who have reached out to me about issues or concerns you have and encourage others to do the same. My address is Room 432F, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or you can send me an email at[email protected].
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305. These lines are staffed by legislative employees and maintain later hours during this time of year.
The General Assembly’s website – www.lrc.ky.gov – also has a considerable amount of information, including the full texts of all bills and resolutions.
I hope to hear from you soon.