Kentucky House passes its version of new 2-year state budget
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The Kentucky House overwhelmingly passed its version of a new two-year state budget Friday, but some lawmakers said the unwillingness to tap into more revenue sources would shortchange many of the state’s pressing funding needs.
The GOP-crafted spending plan drew bipartisan support in clearing the House 86-10, even though it dialed back spending on some of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s priorities. It now goes to the Republican-dominated Senate, which will put its imprint on the budget. The differences will likely be ironed out by legislative leaders in a conference committee.
“I believe while not perfect, this is a good step in the process,” House budget committee Chairman Steven Rudy said of the chamber’s spending plan. “It will not be the finished document. But I believe that this balanced budget is very responsible and it will help to move the state forward.”
Weighing in on changes to the plan he submitted to lawmakers, Beshear said the House version has “a lot of good pieces.” But he said he’ll work to fully restore his proposals to boost teachers’ pay and hire more social workers that the House scaled back.
One of Beshear’s biggest objections was the House’s decision to eliminate state General Fund support for KentuckyWired, the troubled project to expand broadband throughout rural Kentucky.
But in an early key test of Kentucky’s new era of divided government, work on the budget document progressed without partisan bickering between the governor and House Republicans.
“This is one of the better budgets we’ve seen in the last 14 years,” Beshear told reporters. “It makes no devastating cuts. With the exception of the KentuckyWired issue, it is fiscally responsible. And it does put new dollars into areas that are a priority of mine.”
The House version altered Beshear’s proposed pay raise for teachers to spread it to other school employees. It boosted school security funding to hire hundreds of counselors. It also scaled back Beshear’s proposal to add more social workers but offered more generous salary enhancements to hire and retain more of them working in child protective services.
The top-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Joni Jenkins, said “there’s a lot of common ground” on the spending plan, but suggested lawmakers consider finding more revenue so the state can “move forward more quickly in education and social services.”
The only new revenue source to help support the House spending plan would come from new taxes on vaping and tobacco productions, which would raise nearly $50 million over two years.
Democratic Rep. Kelly Flood also urged lawmakers to consider new revenue sources to help meet more of the state’s funding needs. She identified sports betting as one possibility. A bill to legalize sports wagering currently stalled in the House would generate an estimated $22 million to $25 million in yearly revenue, its supporters have said.
As is customary, the House’s budget plan made changes to the governor’s plan.
Beshear proposed a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers, fulfilling a key campaign pledge from last year. It would amount to a 3.7% raise for the average teacher making $53,923 in 2019. The governor says the salary boost is needed to overcome a shortage of teachers.
The House GOP version would provide a 1% pay increase in each year of the biennium for teachers but spread it to other school employees, including office staff, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.
All state employees also would be in line for 1% pay raises in each year of the biennium under the House GOP plan, with a few exceptions.
The House version goes beyond the governor’s proposal for school safety funding. The House plan would provide nearly $49 million over two years to hire an additional 400 school counselors.
House Republicans set aside funding to hire 100 additional social workers in child protective services over the two-year period. Beshear proposed adding 350 social workers to reduce caseloads and to combat the state’s high rates of child abuse and neglect. House Republicans also proposed offering bigger pay raises as an incentive as the state struggles to hire and retain more social workers in child protective services.
The governor objected to the House’s decision to discontinue about $35 million in annual state General Fund support for KentuckyWired. He said it would likely cause a default on a contract, which would potentially cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
The effort to cut off funding comes at a time when the project is about 80% complete and costs have stabilized, Beshear said.
“Like or dislike the project, we are where we are,” Beshear said. “Our only responsible option is to provide this funding in the budget.”