FRANKFORT – When Governor Bevin presented his budget to the General Assembly in late January, it quickly became clear that his proposed cuts to education would be too much for our schools to handle.
It would reduce elementary and secondary funding by more than $380 million over the next two years and take away almost $160 million more from our colleges and universities. That’s 540 million steps back at a time when it is more critical than ever that we have our students running ahead.
One university president underscored just how devastating the governor’s budget would be when he said that the combined effect of the cuts and additional state-mandated costs would effectively take away a third of his institution’s state revenue in a single year.
On Thursday, the House voted to reject the governor’s approach. While I wish we could do more, there is no way I could support anything that I thought would do irreparable harm to education. If the House plan becomes law, our schools will at least be able to move ahead without taking drastic measures that, for some, might even include closing their doors.
Another positive element of the House budget is that it also guarantees full funding for our state retirement systems, continuing the promise the General Assembly made when it passed major reforms in 2013.
It is important to remember that these reforms are still in the early stages of a 30-year journey, but as long as we stay on this path, we will continue to see these systems strengthen. Last year, thanks in large part to meeting this goal, they earned between 13 and 15 percent on their investments, a trend we hope will continue.
The House budget also makes it easier for schools and retired teachers alike to afford their health insurance, and it adds $5 million over two years for additional school-safety measures, an issue that is understandably getting more attention following recent school shootings in Marshall County and in Parkland, Fla.
At the postsecondary level, meanwhile, this budget would restore the 6.25 percent cuts the governor recommended and make it possible for universities to significantly add to and upgrade their facilities.
Beyond education and public pensions, the House budget backs the hiring of more prosecutors; adds $20 million over two years to make it easier for working families near the poverty level to afford childcare; makes it possible for Kentucky State Police to buy about 200 new cruisers; combines an array of cancer-screening funding so that the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville have more flexibility; and restores some, but not all, of the 70 programs that the governor had recommended be cut completely.
Some of those that would see funding returned include the Poison Control Center; the Robinson’s Scholars program that helps qualified students in Eastern Kentucky attend the University of Kentucky if they are the first in their family going to college; and a center that promotes literacy development.
There are elements of the budget that I wish could be improved. It relies heavily on one-time or declining sources of revenue, for example, and it dips too much into tobacco-settlement and other critical funds. It also maintains many of the governor’s steep cuts across a broad section of state government when many agencies are already struggling to get by with less than they were receiving a decade ago.
Although we are in the final third of the legislative session, House leaders have promised to move ahead with tax reform before the General Assembly adjourns in mid-April. It is much too soon to say what that proposal might look like, but the fact is that our state revenues are not aligned well with our economy and we exempt more than we receive. It is time to take a closer look at those twin issues, but public input in this process is absolutely vital. This is not something that can be rushed.
For now, the budget now heads to the Senate, which will decide what changes it may want to make. Legislative leaders from both chambers will then try to come up with a compromise toward the end of the month, and Governor Bevin will have about 10 days to decide whether to sign it into law or veto some or all of it. After the General Assembly considers whether to override those vetoes, the final version will take effect on July 1, the start of the fiscal year.
While that work dominated the House’s schedule last week, there was one other bill to pass that deserves recognition. That legislation, House Bill 1, builds on the recommendations of a bipartisan task force that spent much of last year looking for ways to improve adoption and foster care policies across the state. This bill goes a long way toward making it easier for a child to be quickly placed in a loving home.
Despite having relatively few days left in the legislative session, there is still plenty of time to let me know your views about the budget or any other bill now being considered. 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.