FRANKFORT – While no legislative session is alike, those in even-numbered years do have one major theme in common: That’s when the General Assembly enacts the state’s budget.
Governors start the process by submitting their plan to the House and Senate in late January. The chambers first work separately and then together to find a compromise by mid-April that will take effect on July 1st, the start of the state’s fiscal year.
Last week, Governor Bevin offered the first budget of his administration, and it recommends some substantial cuts, nearly 10 percent for those areas affected. He would like to see those cuts begin this fiscal year, but I do not think that can be done without legislative action, because we are seeing state revenues grow, not shrink. It would also be extremely difficult to make such reductions in the five months we have remaining in the current fiscal year.
For the upcoming budget, however, I believe governors should have leeway if they believe they can carry out state services at a lower cost. At the same time, I also think we should look for a way to help families more, which is why I think we need to consider applying some of the excess revenue I mentioned to a tax cut. This would help them better meet expenses while helping our economy.
That is an issue we will study more in the month or so the House will have to review the budget. We want to make sure that critical services are maintained, and that the families who depend on these services are not adversely affected.
It is important to note that about 90 cents of every dollar the state spends goes to education, criminal justice, Medicaid and other human services and transportation. We have already made a string of cuts in each since 2008 – about $1.6 billion overall – and some agencies have lost a third or more of their funding as a result. Our public colleges and universities have also lost state funding, so we need to be careful there as well. Otherwise, we risk losing the remarkable gains we have made in postsecondary education over the past 20 years.
The main reason for the governor’s proposed cuts is because of liabilities in our public retirement systems. This is indeed the biggest long-term crisis we face, but I think the 2013 law we passed to strengthen the system for state workers is still a viable blueprint going forward, and I have legislation that is a much more sensible solution for our teachers.
My House Bill 1 would take advantage of near-historic low interest rates to issue bonds that the Kentucky Teachers Retirement System (KTRS) could then invest. Its 20-year track record shows that chances are better than good that it could easily outpace the bond rates.
We need that investment income, because it makes up more than half of each retirement dollar the systems send out each month. Under the governor’s plan, KTRS would still have to sell some of its holdings to make payments. My proposal would keep that from happening.
As debate on these issues moves forward, I do think there are some very worthwhile elements to the governor’s budget. For example, it calls for boosting pay for Kentucky State Police troopers, a cause I have championed, and it would ease the backload of untested rape kits. I think plans to help our public defenders needs to include help for our prosecutors as well, because it is vital we keep both sides balanced.
Although the budget was the most widely discussed topic in the General Assembly last week, the House did take action on a separate important matter on Thursday. That day, we approved legislation that would allow women seeking an abortion to use video-conferencing technology when talking face-to-face with their physician. Current law has long required meetings a day before, but court rulings have allowed this to include recorded phone messages. Under this change, which I helped broker, face-to-face meetings would have to occur as the law originally envisioned, but those could take place either in person on or through such means as Skype. It appears this House-sponsored compromise is set to become law.
On Friday, the House approved a bill that would add paramedics, EMTs and other first responders to the program that currently provides an $80,000 state death benefit for firefighters and police officers who are killed in the line of duty.
If the bill becomes law, as I think it will, the spouse and children of those newly added emergency workers would also see their tuition waived at our public postsecondary schools, and this would apply as well if the worker became permanently and totally disabled while on the job. This is the very least we can do as a state for those who sacrifice so much for our safety.
I want to thank everyone who has contacted me so far this legislative session. With a third now complete, we are at the point where we know what will be debated; the goal now is to find compromise where we can.
If you would like to let me know your thoughts, my email is [email protected] 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.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.