FRANKFORT – As a bill, the state budget isn’t particularly long, but it’s not a quick read, either, with blocks of text periodically broken up by rows of numbers.
At the same time, there is no more important legislation before the General Assembly than this 150-page document. Over the next two fiscal years, those blocks of text and rows of numbers will largely drive $22 billion in state spending and about $50 billion more in federal and restricted funds, and the policy decisions flowing from that will determine our priorities in a way no other law can. Without this bill, and the others for the judicial and legislative branches, all but the most essential state services constitutionally guaranteed would stop.
Over the past several weeks, the House of Representatives’ eight budget review committees have been poring over Governor Bevin’s proposal and hearing from state officials and stakeholders alike on how his recommendations would affect them.
For many, the news is not good. After nearly a decade of cuts, most agencies are being asked to scale back another six percent – and about 70 programs would see no more state funding at all if the governor’s plan stands.
One of those that would be cut completely is the Georgia Chafee Teenage Parent Program (TAPP). For nearly 50 years now, it has helped young mothers in Jefferson County finish high school, and some of its more recent graduates testified last Wednesday how it had changed their lives for the better, giving them the educational and emotional support they needed to keep pursuing their degree. Taking away TAPP’s state funding – less than a half-million dollars – could cost us far more than any short-term gain.
The same goes for overall cuts to education, which takes the brunt of the governor’s proposed reductions. My fellow legislators and I have been hearing numerous stories about how catastrophic this would be.
Some districts in Eastern Kentucky are already at risk of going broke, having been hit hard by steep drops in coal production and the Great Recession. There is almost no way they can take on the substantial transportation costs the governor is asking them to shoulder.
In at least one district, some students are already spending four hours a day riding a bus because there isn’t money for additional routes.
To help the most financially strapped districts bridge the divide, the House approved a bill on Friday that would let them take out an interest-free loan from excess per-pupil funding. There is broad agreement that this is a short-term fix, even if this becomes a grant they don’t have to pay back, but it is a necessary step, nonetheless.
There is dire news at the public postsecondary level as well. On Thursday, for example, the president of Northern Kentucky University said that when all of the cuts and extra costs mandated in the governor’s budget are added up, his university would receive one-third less from the state.
Similar issues are arising in our criminal justice system. Late last month, the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said that the state’s prisons will be full in little more than a year if further judicial reforms are not made. A workgroup formed by the governor last year has come up with nearly two dozen suggestions that would reduce projected prison growth by 80 percent over the next decade, but it is too soon to say whether those suggestions will become law.
It is also too soon to say what the House version of the budget will look like, but leaders have said they expect a vote by the end of this month. What is worrisome is that there has been no discussion about doing anything but cut. Moving in that direction would almost certainly slow if not halt much of the successes the state has helped many achieve.
As our budget subcommittees continue their work, the full chamber considered relatively few bills last week. Perhaps the most prominent was a constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly to almost immediately overrule Executive Branch administrative regulations – without passing a new law and even when not in session. Proponents say this will better ensure legislative intent is maintained, but opponents worry that it wrongly tips the balance between legislators and the governor’s administration.
The House also voted for legislation last week that its sponsor says updates the law for those who work for such internet-based companies as Uber. Here, those in favor say this is needed to better tailor the rules in this growing part of the economy, but opponents worry that it erodes employee protections.
The 60-day legislative session hits the halfway point on Wednesday this week, so the hours spent debating bills will go up as the number of remaining days decline. I encourage you to keep contacting me with your views and concerns, especially until mid-April, when the House and Senate adjourn.
My address is Room 432F, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or you can send me an email at [email protected].
Our toll-free message line is 800-372-7181, and if you have a hearing impairment, it is 800-896-0305.
There is also a lot of information on the General Assembly’s website: www.lrc.ky.gov. If you are on Twitter, our caucus account is @KYHouseDems. We are on Facebook as well.