When Governor Beshear took office in December 2007, he joked that he knew the cupboard would be bare, but that he didn’t expect it to be gone.
Since then, he has overseen more than $430 million worth of cuts, all without touching Medicaid and our classrooms. Unfortunately, with the nation’s economy showing no signs of improvement, he and the General Assembly learned in November that this would not be enough. Our state economists told us that another $456 million would still need to be trimmed by the end of June.
Taking on that challenge, Governor Beshear crafted a plan that would enable us to balance the books as our constitution requires. Last week, the General Assembly largely agreed to his guidelines when we enacted a revised budget that continues to protect critical health and human services and our elementary and secondary schools.
Under this new law, which had bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the state still faces $147 million more in cuts, or about four percent for most agencies, including the legislature and the judiciary. Postsecondary schools will only have about two percent cuts.
This approach will require a substantial use of our “Rainy Day” fund as well as transfers from several other areas within state government. It also includes a revenue increase from tobacco and package alcohol sales.
Legislators agreed to this blend of user fees so that the burden would not fall too heavily on just one of those products, and also because we did not want a mandated, across-the-board increase for all taxpayers.
This was not an easy decision, but the alternative was far steeper cuts for virtually all areas of state government, our schools included.
By doing this, we preserve not just those programs needed more than ever, but also keep coal severance and tobacco settlement revenues where they are intended. In addition, there will be no lay-offs or furloughs for a state government workforce already at its lowest level in nearly 20 years.
A few days before the vote on this revised budget was taken, we got further proof that difficult days are still ahead. The Office of State Budget Director reported that January’s revenues were down 4 percent when compared to January 2008, and that the Road Fund was off by 12.5 percent for the same period.
The federal stimulus package approved by Congress holds promise as a financial bridge to hopefully better days. However, there is a strong commitment to use this money just to maintain what we have, and not to depend on it for new programs.
While the budget dominated the news last week, several other bills the House sent to the Senate deserve mention. On Thursday, for example, the House voted overwhelmingly for legislation that would prohibit those 18 and younger from talking or texting on their cellphones while driving.
That day we also gave local governments 10 instead of five years to begin making their full payment to their retirement system, a move that would help them financially now while still preserving the system for the long term.
We also voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would give voters the chance next year to give most convicted felons the right to vote after fulfilling every aspect of their punishment, including probation and parole. Right now, Kentucky and Virginia are the only states that do not automatically grant voting rights after a felon has paid his or her debt to society. They can only be granted by an action from the governor.
Not all of our work in the House last week involved bills and resolutions. On Thursday, we celebrated the 200th birthday of our most famous Kentuckian and our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. One of our legislative colleagues spoke to us in period costume and reminded us of the timeless virtues that Lincoln pursued.
Under an agreement with the Senate, the legislature will not be in session this week, but will resume its work on Monday. We still have 17 days left, and will be finished by the end of March.
As always, please feel free to contact me with your views because that input is critical, especially during legislative sessions. You can always write to me at Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For the deaf or hard of hearing, the number is 800-896-0305.
Representative Rick Rand