FRANKFORT – If the poet was right when he said, “In my beginning is my end,” the 2012 legislative session began this winter with intimations of a difficult end in spring, forced by hard reality to adjourn in mid-April with a budget leaving deep scars across the face of state government.
A Governor who used language striking enough to give pause outlined that prospect in two sobering early-session speeches.
In his State of the Commonwealth Address to a joint session of the House and Senate on the session’s second night, Governor Steve Beshear called Kentucky’s budget situation (unspecifically but vividly) “wretched.”
Last week’s follow-up Budget Address was more specific. It was the message of a Governor whose budget writers — after 10 previous rounds of cuts since 2007, with some agencies seeing cuts totaling 38 percent — have run out of rabbits to pull from their hat.
Basically, Governor Beshear was passing that empty hat to lawmakers. It felt like a night of reckoning.
He outlined shortfalls so vast in the cumulative scheme of recent years, with cumulative cutting now so deep, that the budget he proposed was, he said, “inadequate for the needs of our people.” It was another sobering phrase. Newspapers headlined it.
Kentucky’s two-year, $19.5 billion General Fund budget is once again back to basics. Federal stimulus money, which flowed so generously the past two years, is gone to come no more. Fund transfers, the obvious cutting of fat, the easy efficiencies and economies, accounting tricks like delayed debt payments — those are mostly used up, or even worse, as in the latter instance, coming back around and coming due.
In the deep trough of the Great Recession, they were just patches. They combined in recent years to account for about $3 billion in non-recurring dollars. That string, though, has about run out.
Three one-time moves involving big money were still left to the administration, and all three are played in the budget proposal. Some $103 million is taken from the state’s $122-million Rainy Day Fund. A tax amnesty program is proposed that could, with any luck, bring in $61 million. And a budget summary handed out later shows $245 million in proposed fund transfers. The summary posits a $742 million gap, all told, between ongoing revenues and base spending.
Bottom line: Even with those one-time millions, it is a budget that comes up $286 million short, and envisions new cuts of 8.4 percent across much of state government, with some few exceptions.
Taking the full hit would be the governor’s office along with all other constitutional officers, plus the cabinets of Economic Development, Finance, Energy and Environment, Labor, Public Protection and Tourism.
Some legislative leaders said given revenues and needs, they saw little room for much change in the overall stringency of the administration’s plan. Still, legislative spending priorities will almost certainly prove somewhat different from the administration’s. The question is, how much and what way?
Only the Legislature can pass a state budget. It will be the Legislature, over the next three months that writes the line-by-line particulars of the budget. The governor can only propose. And, while what he proposed for much of state government was pain, it was not all bad news and cuts.
The administration did find money for a few spending increases, including $21 million to reduce the backbreaking caseload of social workers, an issue much in the headlines lately. The money would enable 300 new social-services workers to be hired, at least 100 of them frontline doorknockers.
Another recent page-one concern – the struggle against prescription drug abuse – would get new money too, with $4 million to expand the state’s tracking program to fight it. Substance-abuse treatment for adults and teenagers in the Medicaid program would get $8 million. That is new
Such treatment is not now available in the state-federal health-coverage plan for low-income Kentuckians.
Some key areas would be spared the full 8.4-percent cuts. State universities would be cut by “only” 6.4 percent next year, and Kentucky State Police and most public safety agencies by 2.2 percent.
Some few areas – albeit admittedly among the state’s most costly — would escape the knife altogether. Exempted from cuts would be Medicaid, basic SEEK funding for grades K-12, preschool programs, Corrections, veterans’ affairs, child and adult protection, mental health, public defenders, student financial aid, mine permitting, and strip-mine reclamation.
While all would be spared actual cuts, in most cases inflation and rising costs would inevitably take their toll. Most notably: While SEEK funding for elementary and secondary education wouldn’t be reduced, it is essentially frozen at its current level – so anticipated increases in student population mean per-pupil expenditures would in fact drop back to 2008 levels.
Other education-related programs do face actual cuts. Key support programs like after-school initiatives and family resource and youth-service centers would be cut by 4.5 percent.
But in positive news, the stand-alone state Road Fund is doing well, riding the back of higher gas prices. Several major road projects (paid for specifically from that fund) will, the governor says, proceed. His proposed budget includes $100 million for Louisville’s Ohio River bridges project in the next two years, plus $236 million in previously approved bonds for that project. The bonds would be paid off later out of the Road Fund.
The budget also sets aside $143 million to continue widening a dangerous stretch of Interstate 65 north of Bowling Green, where major wrecks seem almost daily and too often deadly.
Other light in the tunnel: General Fund revenue is growing again, too, as Kentucky’s economy continues its slow but steady recovery.
That welcome growth is projected to increase modestly throughout the two-year budget. But even the most optimistic hoped-for growth falls far short of replacing the one-time federal stimulus funds that shored up the state budget during the worst of the recession.
The absence of stimulus money explains a widespread public disconnect out there, with folks wondering: Why do we hear about revenues improving, yet also that deep cuts are needed? The answer is ‘structural imbalance’ – using one-time money to plug revenue gaps to meet ongoing expenses.
Along those lines – and to address that situation –the Governor used his Budget Address to once again pitch his signature issue, expanded gambling in Kentucky. He called on the House and Senate to pass and send to the voters a constitutional amendment to allow casinos in Kentucky. He contended that casinos at the state’s racetracks alone would dump one-time license fees of $266 million into the Treasury, and thereafter pump $377 million yearly into the General Fund.
So far, no expanded gambling proposal in recent years has gained sufficient legislative traction to even approach two-chamber passage. How – or even if – the issue unfolds this session remains unknowable, and unknown. But legislative response so far has been muted, at best.
Meanwhile, the other immediately compelling issue of the session’s first month – state, federal and judicial redistricting – proceeded on pace, with the Senate signing off on a reapportionment plan the House passed for itself earlier, while adding its own for itself.
The two chambers had jointly unfurled white flags on drawing new district lines, agreeing not to interfere in the other body’s determination of its own makeup.
As in the House plan that passed, where majority Democrats drew districts that in several cases pit incumbent Republicans against each other, so did majority Republicans in the Senate draw lines that in several cases pit incumbent Democrats against each other. Such is the nature of redistricting, always the most bruising, political, and personal process any legislative body undertakes.
With no prior gentlemen’s agreement, however, Congressional redistricting is up in the air. The chambers passed substantially different plans that will need a conference committee to resolve. Work on that is scheduled to resume Monday, at this writing.
Redistricting of House, Senate and Congressional districts is a once-a-decade Constitutional requirement. States must adjust district lines to account for population changes or shifts identified by the most recent U.S. Census. It is a legally and technically tough job, easy to find fault with, and certain to caused bruised feelings. But it is ultimately central to good representative government, necessary under our system — and something every Legislature is glad to see in its rearview mirror.
It is still early in the session and we have much work yet to be done. To keep you up-to-date on my work, I have included a list of legislation that I have filed as the primary sponsor and the status of those bills:
- SB 36 — Relating to missing children. Assigned to the Judiciary Committee.
- SB 37 – Relating to fingerprint background checks of long-term care employees. Assigned to the Health and Welfare Committee.
- SB 39 – Relating to school collection of data on body mass index, height, and weight. Assigned to the Education Committee.
- SB 44 – Relating to dating violence. Assigned to the Judiciary Committee.
- SB 93 – Relating to brain impaired missing persons. Assigned to the Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection Committee.
- SB 104 – Relating to the protection of adults. Assigned to Judiciary.
I will keep you posted on the work of the General Assembly, and ask for your feedback as well. To do my job well, I need to hear from you. To leave a message for me, or any legislator, call the General Assembly’s toll-free Message Line at 1-800-372-7181 or in Spanish at the General Assembly’s Spanish Line at 1-866-840-6574. You can also email me at [email protected].
For more details about the work of the General Assembly, you can visit the Kentucky Legislature Home Page, www.lrc.ky.gov. A taped message containing information on legislative committee meetings is updated daily at 1-800-633-9650. To check the status of a bill, you may call the toll-free Bill Status Line at 1-866-840-2835.
Senator Harper Angel represents the 35th Senate District in Jefferson County.