FRANKFORT – Most days during a legislative session, it is not uncommon to see supporters in the Capitol Rotunda rallying for a variety of important causes. Each event may be different, but they collectively serve as powerful reminders that the votes we in the House and Senate take just two floors away have a real impact on the direction Kentucky takes.
That thought came to mind last Thursday, when Children’s Advocacy Day was celebrated. Its mission is simple, one that no one can realistically oppose. It calls for children to live in a safe and loving home, to receive a quality education, to experience optimal health and to have a family that can make ends meet.
In a way, that is the same mission legislators and the governor alike try to fulfill during each legislative session, especially those in even-numbered years when we enact the budget to run state government.
That process officially got underway early last week, when Governor Bevin presented his plan to the General Assembly. While there are areas where I think there will be broad support, I worry that, in key ways, his budget does not meet the Children’s Advocacy Day standard.
For one, it calls for steep cuts across a broad section of state spending, with no real discussion about tax reform that the governor himself has said is necessary.
Almost $200 million of the governor’s cuts would come from elementary and secondary education, and nearly $80 million more would be taken from our public colleges and universities. This is on top of nearly $2 billion in total cuts across state government over the past decade.
While per-pupil spending, known more formally as SEEK, is maintained, there are significant reductions elsewhere, with perhaps the most troublesome coming in school transportation.
State funding in this area has essentially been flat for years, but under the governor’s plan, it would plummet from $214 million annually to $87 million. For many districts, especially in the rural parts of the state, this would be potentially devastating, and would almost certainly limit many routes and keep older buses on the road much longer.
This budget also calls for no new money for textbooks, and it would potentially end health insurance coverage for teachers who have retired but are not yet eligible for Medicare. This undercuts a 2010 law that strengthened this particular benefit, and it is no understatement to say it would be an unfair burden on those living on a fixed income.
Another major problem with the governor’s budget is that it would end all state support for about 70 long-standing programs. Those include an array of popular cancer screenings and scholarships that use coal severance dollars to help college students from coal-producing counties finish their four-year degree close to home. Other academic and artistic initiatives would be closed down as well.
As I mentioned, there were some proposals that are being well-received by legislators. That includes replacing outdated equipment for law enforcement, hiring new prosecutors and public advocates and reducing caseloads for overworked social workers. There also would be more money to fight the opioid epidemic.
The governor’s budget also addresses the unfunded liabilities in our public retirement systems, continuing ongoing reform efforts that date back to the early 2000s. The governor’s plan will need closer scrutiny, though, given the impact on many retired teachers’ health insurance.
We also have yet to see any proposed retirement system reforms that Governor Bevin and Republican House and Senate leaders have been promising for months. Their last effort, which was unveiled during the fall, was widely and correctly criticized for putting much of the liability on the backs of public workers and their retirees. We need to make sure any revised proposal does not travel a similar path.
Legislators will also be closely reviewing the Medicaid waiver that the governor proposed in 2016 and which was approved by the federal government earlier this month. It sets the stage for new requirements never before allowed in the program’s 50-year history, and it would add a layer of bureaucracy for those who cannot get or afford health coverage elsewhere.
The governor’s administration itself estimates 100,000 fewer people being insured by 2020, and he is threatening to end the popular expansion altogether if the courts ultimately determine any aspect of this approach is illegal. Such a move would take away much of the progress we have seen when it comes to improving our collective health.
Now that the General Assembly has the budget in hand, the House will spend the rest of this month and all of February reviewing it and hearing from those who would be affected. The Senate will then do the same, and legislative leaders will work on a compromise that will likely be voted on by the end of March. Once enacted, the two-year budget will take effect in July.
As that process moves forward, the House is beginning to pass other bills, which I will begin writing about next week.
In the meantime, I want to encourage you to keep contacting me with your thoughts and concerns. You can always write to me at 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.
The General Assembly’s website – www.lrc.ky.gov – also has information about the legislative session, including the texts of bills and resolutions.
I hope to hear from you soon.