Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work on a number of budgets for our Commonwealth, but I can’t recall one that was as difficult – or as rewarding – as the one set to be signed into law this month.
Difficult because state spending is still feeling the negative effects of the worst recession the country has seen in more than seven decades. Rewarding because this budget re-affirms the General Assembly’s commitment to education, protecting our most vulnerable citizens, and doing everything we can to put hard working people back to work.
In many ways, it mirrors the proposal that Governor Beshear presented to legislators in January and the House of Representatives approved last month. Its key highlight is setting aside significantly more money for elementary and secondary education, making it the first real increase our schools have seen since 2008. I’m happy to report that we have ensured millions of dollars more for vital needs like textbooks, school safety measures and teacher development.
Additionally, we’ve set the stage for a wave of new construction projects on our college campuses, both at the university level and on many of our KCTCS campuses. This, on top of a road plan the General Assembly is set to approve early next week, will provide a shot-in-the-arm for Kentucky’s construction industry.
Speaking of college, high school students will see no reduction in the money they earn in the KEES program, which uses the state’s lottery proceeds to provide scholarships for good grades. There is also more money for the other two lottery-based financial aid programs.
One aspect of our budget of which I am tremendously proud is that it doubles the money for a pilot program being used by college students here in the mountains to get their four-year degree close to home. I hope that legislation I am sponsoring to make this program permanent, and to extend it to all coal-producing counties, passes the Senate before this year’s session is complete. There is no reason for that chamber not to.
The budget provides raises for state and school employees alike, and it also appropriates the necessary funding for the state employee retirement system, which is an important step toward paying down its long-term liability.
Our children will benefit from an increase in preschool eligibility in the budget’s second year, and there is also nearly $100 million for a childcare-assistance program that unfortunately suffered cuts last year.
When it comes to some of the programs on which working families rely, the budget adds 1,200 new slots to three programs that treat those with intellectual disabilities, and it gives our school family resource centers $2 million more over the next two years. Domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers will get $500,000 apiece in new money during the same timeframe.
Another budget highlight includes $30 million for a new broadband-internet project that will increase access to this service, beginning here in Eastern Kentucky. It will be paired with $40 million in federal and private funding.
Our state parks, meanwhile, will get $4 million extra a year for maintenance.
The Governor’s Scholars Program and the Governor’s School for the Arts – which do so much for our brightest high school students – will get 50 new slots apiece; and there will be an expansion of the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University, which puts dozens of high school juniors and seniors from across in the commonwealth in a college-like setting. A similar program will be started at Morehead State University.
Specific to our community, the budget contains numerous coal-severance projects that will help our fire departments and rescue squad, veteran’s organizations, parks, senior citizens center and scholarships for the Highlands Center for Autism. There is also language that could lead to the re-opening of the Otter Creek facility as a secure nursing home for the state’s oldest and sickest prisoners who may be eligible for parole.
For now, the General Assembly is on a brief recess to give the governor time to consider whether to sign legislation into law or veto it. The other legislators and I will return this coming Monday to complete the session.
In addition to deciding what to do with any vetoes, should they occur, we will almost certainly vote for other legislation. In addition to passing the state’s road plan, that includes hopefully passing bills designed to tackle an epidemic of heroin abuse and to improve our juvenile justice system.
I will cover those issues as well as other legislation in a future column. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to let me know your views or concerns. You can 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.