Lawmakers 'anxious' to dig into proposed budget

Lawmakers 'anxious' to dig into proposed budget

By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI/Raycom Kentucky

FRANKFORT, KY (CNHI) - Lawmakers' reactions to Gov. Matt Bevin's budget speech Tuesday night is perhaps best captured by a comment from the House Republican who chairs the budget committee which will begin work on the new budget.

"You can't judge a book by its cover," Rep. Steve Rudy, R-Paducah, said. "And you can't judge a budget by a speech."

Many in the House -- where the budget bill must originate -- had similar reactions Wednesday, although there are clearly some questioning Bevin's proposal to transfer more of the costs of transportation to local school districts.

"I think (members) are anxious to dig into it," Speaker Pro Tem David Osborne, R-Prospect, said when asked how his caucus reacted to the budget proposal. "On the surface, it appears to be thoughtfully constructed, and I think that is encouraging to some of our members, but until we actually get into the details of it, it's pretty tough to have any enormous reaction to it at this point."

Bevin administration officials have said they understand the proposal is the first step in a process and there is likely to be "tweaking" as the bill goes through first the House and Senate.

Bevin's proposal is to reduce spending across much of state government while significantly increasing contributions to the state's inadequately funded state pension systems by $3.3 billion.

He also wants to protect "classroom support" for education, called SEEK, while increasing spending in some priority areas. Those include $24 million for more social workers; $34 million from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to combat opioid addiction; money to hire 75 new commonwealth and county attorneys and 51 public defenders; and money to purchase new cruisers and weapons for Kentucky State Police.

But without significant revenue growth, those increases and the money for pensions must come primarily from existing spending. To get it, Bevin proposes to eliminate about 70 programs totaling $85 million and to cut non-instructional areas of education while asking most of the rest of state government to take a 6.25% spending reduction.

Among those 70 programs are funding for colon, cervical and breast cancer screenings which Ben Chandler, head of the Foundation for a Health Kentucky, called "the essence of being penny wise and pound foolish."

Democratic Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook said such programs as the Robinson Scholarships, which have provided college costs for first family members to get college educations and coal scholarships, will be especially hurtful to eastern Kentucky.

Other programs facing extinction are the ARC of Kentucky, the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead State University, work-study scholarships, and incentives for the film industry.

Adkins also is troubled by the prospect of yet another funding reduction -- this time of $78 million -- to higher education. He said Bevin should understand the recent economic development progress he's touted is often the product of decades of investment, especially in education.

But it's the cuts to transportation and asking school districts to dip into reserve funds while cutting administrative costs which drew the most comment Wednesday. Currently, the state pays 58% of transportation costs. Bevin's proposal would reduce that to 25%.

Bevin said in his speech Tuesday he is budgeting about half of the recommended level for the state's "rainy day fund" -- about $250 million -- and it's only fair to ask school districts to utilize some of their reserve funds for transportation costs.

But while a couple of dozen districts have rolled up sizable reserve funds, most are at or below the 2% of revenues required by state law.

So dipping into reserves won't cover the transportation costs for poorer districts, many of which tend to be rural and more dependent on buses to transport children.

Rep. McKenzie Cantrell, D-Louisville, said House members from both parties were fielding text messages from local superintendents even as Bevin spoke to lawmakers Tuesday evening.

Rep. Bart Rowland, R-Tompkinsville, said Metcalfe County Superintendent Benny Lile estimated the costs to his district would be about $625,000, a big blow to a small, rural district.

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While Bevin emphasized in his speech his proposal to protect SEEK funding, lawmakers who were delving deeper into the governor's proposals on Wednesday were surprised by some things.

"I think if you just listened to his speech and then didn't compare that with the numbers that have come out, you wouldn't realize how much education has been cut," Cantrell said.

Those concerns may be even deeper in rural areas.

"I think we have significant work ahead to find ways to help districts with transportation costs," House Education Chairman John "Bam" Carney, R-Campbellsville, a public school employee, said. "Especially those rural districts which are barely maintaining their contingency funds (2% of revenues)."

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.

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