House, senate supports spending plan

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By Tom McKee

When the General Assembly began the 2012 Regular Session in January, there was little doubt what its biggest challenge would be: writing a two-year budget that could continue meeting the state’s critical needs in light of previous cuts totaling more than a billion dollars.
On Friday evening, after weeks of discussion and several late nights working on a compromise, the House and Senate put its support behind a spending plan that will go a long way to achieving that goal.
Even before final negotiations began, both chambers had already agreed in large measure with the budget Governor Beshear presented in the session’s opening days. My legislative colleagues and I agree that, like any family during tough times, we must live within our means, and that we must limit debt as much as possible while still investing in those areas that will pay dividends long into the future.
As a result, this budget has no tax increases but no raises, either. With few exceptions, all three branches of government are taking the same 8.4 percent cut next fiscal year, which begins in July, and then maintaining that level of spending in the budget’s second year.
The exceptions include classroom funding, which we have shielded as much as possible during this economic downturn, and other such areas as Medicaid, corrections, financial aid for college students, local prosecutors and services for veterans. Our social workers will actually see an increase in both money and staffing, in an effort to reduce the heavy caseloads they now have.
Last year’s major reforms of Medicaid and our criminal justice system are beginning to show the financial savings we had hoped for. In Medicaid, that totals more than $300 million, while savings in corrections will allow us to give $9 million to counties to help with their jail costs and to use nearly $7 million to boost substance abuse programs many of our state prisoners need.
The budget includes a little more than $1 million to expand the veterans nursing home in Western Kentucky and gives approval to go ahead with a new veterans nursing home – which would be the state’s fourth – if the federal government approves.
There is additional assistance for both the Kentucky Horse Park and the Kentucky Fair Board, which has been hit hard because of such things as the closure of the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park in Louisville. Design work for renovating Rupp Arena can continue as well, and our state parks will get $6 million for additional maintenance.
In agricultural matters, there are no cuts in the 164 slots available for Kentucky students wanting to become veterinarians. Because Kentucky doesn’t have its own veterinary school, the state helps cover out-of-state tuition costs for students who want to join that profession.
The budget also includes $4 million to lay the groundwork for replacing a veterinary center in Western Kentucky. This center, like the one at the University of Kentucky, plays a critical role in protecting our farm animals from disease.
In another matter, the House and Senate didn’t hesitate to help victims of the March 2nd tornadoes. Those affected by these storms – including those in Pendleton and Campbell counties – will now be able to get a rebate on the sales tax paid for purchases of building materials. Schools in these areas will also not lose any funding because of days they had to miss.
Although it doesn’t affect our region directly, the budget also lays the groundwork for a new scholarship program that will help students in coal-producing counties obtain their four-year college degree. The money will come from coal-severance dollars these counties receive for economic development projects.
While the budget is now awaiting Gov. Beshear’s signature, there is still some work left to be done on the legislative session’s last day, April 12. Normally, we would use that time just to consider any vetoes the governor might issue, but we will also finalize our road plan that day and, hopefully, give final approval to a major initiative that would limit prescription drug abuse.
In addition to the budget, there were numerous other accomplishments this legislative session, but I will have to detail those in a later column.
In the meantime, I appreciate those who have contacted me this legislative session to let me know their views. If you would like to do that, no matter what time of the year, my address is Room 332B, 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 those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.