Budget impasse continues as House Democrats offer 2 percent cuts for higher ed while presidents say they can handle 4.5 percent

04/08/2016 07:06 PM

Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives have proposed 2 percent cuts for postsecondary institutions during the biennium as lawmakers continue to haggle over a two-year budget.

Budget talks had stalled ahead of the veto break, with Democrats hoping to shield education programs like higher education from Gov. Matt Bevin’s suggested 9 percent spending cuts over the biennium while Senate Republicans wanted those dollars to help pump more money into the state’s beleaguered public pension systems.

House Democrats, who released a joint statement Friday afternoon, called the unresolved budgetary situation facing university presidents “unfair and unwise” in offering their proposal of 2 percent cuts. Senate President Robert Stivers, in a news release later Friday, presented a letter signed by most of those presidents saying they can accept 4.5 percent cuts over the next two fiscal years and 2 percent spending reductions in the current fiscal year if permitted by the courts.

Bevin has ordered 4.5 percent cuts to postsecondary institutions in the current year, a move Attorney General Andy Beshear said April 1 may be challenged in a lawsuit. His spokesman, Terry Sebastian, said that action could come Monday after a seven-day deadline for Bevin to reconsider his stance passed Friday.

The House Democrats’ compromise, offered Wednesday, would also fund their Work Ready Kentucky scholarship program, which would grant Kentucky students free tuition to in-state colleges that offer associate degrees if they enroll straight from high school and maintain a certain grade-point average. It originally called for a 2.0 GPA, but budget negotiators had discussed raising that requirement to 2.5.

“This proposal maintains the Kentucky House Democratic Caucus’s commitment to public education while attempting to move the budget process forward,” House Democratic leaders said in a statement.

“As for current-year cuts, those are being reviewed by the Attorney General, and we continue to believe the governor does not have the authority to take this step. We believe that matter should be left up to the courts.”

Bevin, as part of his budget proposal, had called for 4.5 percent spending cuts in the current fiscal year for many state agencies.

Stivers, R-Manchester, noted that university presidents who signed the letter addressed to him, Bevin and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, Friday indicated their comfort with the Senate GOP’s compromise of 4.5 percent cuts that Republicans unveiled before budget talks broke down last week.

“We cannot imagine the circumstance of no budget,” the university presidents wrote in their letter, which can be downloaded here: University presidents funding letter.pdf. “Therefore, we are prepared to manage reductions in accord with the Governor’s final offer of 2 percent in the current year if it is determined by the courts to be permissible, and a 4.5 percent reduction from the 2015-2016 enacted base in each year of the new biennium.

“We make this difficult decision based on our trust that you have committed to making new investments in higher education in the following biennium, investments that will enhance our state’s economy, and the health and well-being of Kentuckians. Furthermore, we recognize Kentucky State’s unique mission and the need to be addressed separately.”

All presidents except Kentucky State University’s Raymond Burse signed the letter.

Stivers said he appreciates the work conducted on the budget thus far as well as House Democrats’ concession “that some level of participation is needed from our postsecondary institutions in order to address our state’s ailing pension systems,” and he noted that university presidents have said they can accept the funding counterproposal offered by Senate Republicans.

Lawmakers on the budget conference committee hope to have a budget ready for floor votes on Tuesday, the last scheduled day of this year’s 60-day session, but Stivers said there are no set plans to meet over the weekend.

“There are no meetings currently scheduled between the House and Senate, but my staff has alerted House staff of our ability to sit down for a discussion this weekend,” he said in a statement.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill Republican who chairs the Senate budget committee, said in a phone interview with Pure Politics Friday evening that he hopes House Democrats will review the university presidents’ letter “and realize that they are on board with understanding that these pension systems are problematic and they have ways that they can absorb these 4.5 percent cuts” proposed by the Senate during the biennium.

“They need to come back and take a good look at that, and let’s get this budget done,” he said.

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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