Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

March 11, 2014

Democratic House leaders release budget

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI

FRANKFORT — Democratic House leaders unveiled their 2014-2016 state budget Tuesday amid complaints from Republicans that it was hatched in the dark and lawmakers were asked to vote on it without sufficient time to study it.

The two-year, $20.3 billion dollar spending plan looks a lot like that proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear but it makes some changes including spending a bit less on school textbooks and pre-school and adds about $1 billion in debt.

The measure — along with a revenue bill to fund it — easily passed the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee albeit with most Republicans passing or voting no after complaining they’d only gotten a look at it at the 11th hour.

“This is simply the latest heavy-handed tactic of the House Democrat leadership that clearly values political gamesmanship above allowing legislators to make educated decisions for the good of the commonwealth,” Minority House Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said in a written statement.

But House budget Chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford, defended the budget and the process by which Democrats put it together.

The House budget makes only a “few changes to Gov. Beshear’s budget which has been out there since Jan. 21,” Rand said, adding there have been several budget subcommittee meetings at which funding for various agencies and departments were openly debated.

The budget will likely pass the full House on Wednesday but it will no doubt undergo change when it reaches the Republican controlled Senate.

The plan contains $99 million in spending reductions over two years but adds about $1.5 million to the Rainy Day Fund, mostly by 5 percent cuts to constitutional offices and agencies. Funding for elementary and secondary education is increased by $189 million which includes pay increases for teachers of 2 percent in the first year and 1 percent in the second.

State employees would also get raises, with those at the lower salary ranges getting the biggest percentage increases and those at the top receiving only 1 percent increases. All employees would get a 1 percent increase in the second year. The budget also fully funds the annually required contribution to the state employee pension plan.

The House plan would appropriate $32 million for Property Valuation Administrators for their costs in assessing property for special districts. PVAs and Beshear had proposed charging those districts fees but many complained to lawmakers.

The House will also fund 15 case workers for the Department of Public Advocacy. DPA has shown through pilot programs in a couple parts of the state that the case management of many drug and minor offenses can actually save the state significant money. There will also be more money for prosecutors and restoration of funding for child care and foster care assistance.

“This is the kind of investment that ensures parents can keep their jobs; that while parents are at work, children are cared for in settings that ensure safety and preparation to succeed in school; and that local economies thrive,” said Terry Brooks of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “We applaud the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee for including this restored funding in the proposed House budget.”

The committee also sent to the full House a revenue measure including various changes and measures to help fund the budget.

Two of those would overturn recent court decisions and be applied retroactively, something Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said “raises red flags.”

The first would clarify confusion between two laws regarding how some libraries set their tax rates, allowing them to operate under provisions of House Bill 44 — which allows government taxing entities to increase tax revenues by 4 percent without a voter referendum.

Another provision would set a 2 percent pari-mutuel tax on “historical racing” or “instant racing,” where bettors place bets on previously run races without knowing the winner. That form of racing is also the subject of litigation.

The revenue measure locks in the motor fuels tax at the level of Dec. 31, 2013, producing more revenue for the Road Fund budget. The tax is tied to wholesale prices which have been falling. The measure amounts to a 2.2 cent increase over what the per-gallon tax would have fallen to on April 1 of this year after being recalculated on the lower wholesale prices.

Beshear’s spokeswoman said he’s still reviewing the changes made by the House.

“Overall the governor is pleased that the committee agrees with his commitments to supporting education, job creation and better health for our citizens,” Kerri Richardson said. “We will continue to discuss these changes and any others made with the House and Senate as the bill continues to move through the process.”

RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.