January 24, 2014

A Legislative Perspective on the Kentucky General Assembly with State Representative Rick Rand

FRANKFORT – Shortly after Governor Beshear first took office in late 2007, he remarked that not only did he find the cupboard bare, it was actually gone.

It hasn’t gotten any easier since then. Cumulative budget cuts over the last six years have reached $1.6 billion, the state government workforce has shrunk to its smallest size in 40 years and the list of needs continues to grow faster than the revenue coming in.

In taking on these challenges, Governor Beshear and the General Assembly have looked for creative ways to do more with less. The two-year budget that Governor Beshear presented early last week – the last one of his administration – continues that trend.

While the House of Representatives’ budget subcommittees are just starting their review, and a final product won’t be signed into law until mid-April, there appears to be a growing consensus that the governor’s proposal has a lot in its favor.

To begin with, it gives a much-needed boost to classroom funding for elementary and secondary education, something that hasn’t happened in five years. At the same time, it adds more than $95 million for new textbooks, school-safety initiatives, teacher training and after-school services.

There are proposed raises for local school personnel, and state employees as well, and Governor Beshear’s budget calls for a sizeable wave of construction at our public postsecondary schools, a large part of which would be paid by the institutions themselves. These projects include a major upgrade of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s campuses, something that hasn’t happened since KCTCS was formed in the late 1990s.

There is also $60 million in the governor’s budget for the “Bucks for Brains” program, which has already done so much over the last 15 years to increase research at our public four-year universities. This would be the first new funding since 2010.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, Governor Beshear calls for a major expansion of preschool, making it possible for another 5,100 children to attend.

With our youth in mind, he also wants $110 million for the state’s childcare-assistance program, which unfortunately had to be scaled back early last year because of a decline in federal funding. Restoring this money as he suggests would help 10,000 low-income families afford childcare so the parents can continue to work.

Other investments in the budget would continue life-saving cancer screenings; give 1,200 more people with intellectual or developmental disabilities the opportunity to stay in their community for treatment; and help 3,500 more people be served by Meals on Wheels.

There is funding to operate the state’s fourth new veterans nursing home in Radcliff – it’s scheduled to open in the summer of 2015 – and to complete a new veterans cemetery in Leslie County.

Some of the other big-ticket items in the governor’s budget include $100 million for a major upgrade of broadband internet service across the commonwealth. We’re 46th among the states in this area, with nearly a fourth of our citizens not having access. This public-private partnership should help us improve those numbers.

As called for in the most far-reaching law adopted last year, the governor’s budget also sets aside substantially more money for our public retirement systems. This begins fulfilling our commitment to put these plans for state and local government retirees on firmer financial footing.

The governor’s six-year highway plan proposes an aggressive building schedule by the end of the decade. If all goes as he suggested, the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway will be four-laned and extended by 2020 at a cost of more than $750 million; the Louisville bridges project will be finished by late 2016; there will be new bridges over Land Between the Lakes; all of I-65 will be six-laned; and Northern Kentucky will be on its way to having a new bridge to complement the Brent Spence Bridge.

As positive as all of the projects I have mentioned are, there are some challenges along the way. Although moderate growth is projected for the next two years, many agencies will nonetheless face cuts again to cover new investment elsewhere, and for some, this means they would have 40 percent less to do their job than they had several years ago.

There has also been some concern about the level of borrowing. We will closely review this area in the House, keeping in mind Governor Beshear’s arguments that 70 percent of the total is for education; that the amount is comparable to previous budgets; and that the bonds are sold in a staggered schedule so that borrowing costs never exceed six percent of state spending, a general rule of thumb we have long followed.

Given the size of the budget – $68 billion over two years if you count every dollar that flows through state government – there is not enough room to cover every detail here, but hopefully you have a much clearer picture of what will be debated during the next two-and-a-half months.

Feel free to let me know any thoughts or concerns you may have, because I count on your input. My address is Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601. My email address is Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov.

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.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Paid for by Rick Rand for State Representative, Regina Rand, Treasurer