As many of you have heard or read, issues around the state’s budget have not yet been resolved. The primary problem is that the Senate and the House Republicans are unwilling to issue $1.2 billion in additional debt and raise an additional $280 million in taxes. We are simply not in a position to increase our debt load.
Unfortunately, deep philosophical differences remain between the House Democratic majority and the Senate. The House believes that you can spend, borrow, or gamble your way into prosperity while the Senate believes that in these times, people expect shared sacrifice.
The Senate, in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, passed a budget proposal that was 39 percent less structural imbalance than the House’s and for the first time, dropped our debt ratio below 7 percent. We added the two school days the House had eliminated – which would have cost teachers about $500. In an effort to reach out to the House, the Senate proposed to spend $25 million more in SEEK funding, provide a process for building the oldest and in worst shape schools, and fund certain water and sewer projects. The House wouldn’t even consider the proposal on Friday. The Senate stands ready but we cannot agree to higher taxes and higher debt to build projects that were based on whether their representative voted for higher taxes or to expand gambling.
In other legislation, Senate Bill 88 won final passage with the approval of the House and Senate, which will make sure that organizations like the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties are subject to sunshine laws. These groups, which are funded through local government dues and insurance premiums, will also have to post their spending details online so that Kentuckians know where their tax dollars are going.
The Senate also approved legislation aimed at smoothing out the transfer process for students at two-year colleges who move on to our four-year universities. Too often, we see students complete 60 hours at their local community college, only to see some of those hours discounted when they arrive on a four-year campus. It defeats the purpose of saving money by taking core courses close to home, and it’s a real disservice to those Kentuckians seeking an affordable education. House Bill 160 directs the Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees all state public college and universities, to develop a more streamlined and comprehensible system so that a basic three-hour biology class at a community college counts for three hours at any public university -- a simple plan will save time and money for thousands of Kentucky families.
It was frustrating to learn this week that Kentucky did not qualify for federal grant funding of up to $500 million in the first round of the Race to the Top program because a charter school option was missing from the grant application. In the past, this component has been strongly supported by the Republican Senate Majority and but was omitted because of opposition from the teachers’ unions. In order to address this gap, House Bill 109 would allow the creation of charter schools, which would be run separately from its local school district but subject to its oversight. It would be solely up to the local school district whether to pursue this option or not. By freeing school officials from much of the bureaucracy of the normal system, we hope to improve the performance of students who aren’t succeeding in their current school. If the House agrees with our language, we have a real shot at up to $175 million in federal funding when the next phase of federal decision-making comes around.
We’ll be back in Frankfort on April 14 to consider any gubernatorial vetoes and take a final look at any remaining legislation. In the meantime, this is citizens’ last chance to make their voice heard before the session ends. Please call me toll-free with any questions or comments at 1-800-372-7181 or TTY 1-800-896-0305. You can also find us on the Web at www.lrc.state.ky.us.
State Senator Ernie Harris