Budget negotiators make progress on parameters, predict a breakthrough on Saturday

03/28/2014 11:25 PM

Legislative leaders and other budget negotiators turned the page on a rough morning of talks and seemed to lay out the parameters for compromise but stopped short of agreeing to any specifics Friday night.

Instead, lawmakers broke up the formal budget conference committee around 7:35 p.m. for what was supposed to be a 10-minute recess. Lawmakers ended up retreating to their private offices where “informal talks” continued, said House Budget Chairman Rick Rand. Rand and Senate Budget Chairman Bob Leeper returned to the conference committee room around 8:30 to announce that the group would break up for the night for many to watch the Sweet Sixteen game the University of Kentucky won against Louisville, 74-69.

Rand said lawmakers expected to pick up talks early Saturday morning and reconvene the conference committee on the $20 billion two-year budget sometime mid-morning.

Rand and Leeper said they expected to reach a compromise on the measure by “Saturday afternoon or early evening” in time for a final bill to be printed and ready for a vote by the full General Assembly by Monday.

The fate of the two-year road bill that outlines several billion dollars worth of spending on roads and bridges is more uncertain. “It’s a beast,” as Senate Budget Chairman Bob Leeper put it.

Leeper said most of the hard work has and will be done in the public eye in front of KET cameras and the media. But lawmakers will try and give the conference committee a jump-start Saturday morning with private talks among smaller working groups. For instance, lawmakers from coal-producing counties will go over the differences between how the Senate and House versions of the budget doled out some coal severance tax money.

Among other points that must be ironed out:

Bonded projects/Debt
House Speaker Greg Stumbo suggested finding an acceptable compromise of how much to put on the state’s credit card for the next two years. The versions of the budget put forth by the governor and House included 7.05 percent of the revenue going to make debt payments. Last year’s actual debt ratio was 5.94 percent. Stumbo said lawmakers should find a number in between and see which projects to include that fit within that cap. (The Senate’s version of the budget could serve as a starting point at 6.29 percent).

Preschool funding
Democrats wanted to boost preschool spending to cover the cost of more tots from low-income families to attend. Republicans moved some of that money elsewhere. Stumbo suggested a compromise of keeping total funding for preschool assistance flat for the first year of the biennium ($71.3 million), then increase it to $91 million in fiscal year 2016 to cover kids from families earning up to 160 percent of the poverty rate.

K-12 teacher/staff raises
The only remaining challenge is how to give cash-strapped districts flexibility in providing raises for administrators.

School technology
Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, and Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, have been tasked with working out details of using $6.6 million a year for school technology. The governor wanted to use that money to cover payments on a 10-year $50 million bond for computers and technology. Lawmakers seem to be leaning toward using that money to buy bandwidth and allowing school districts to use more flex funds to leverage computer purchases.

*Low-income health programs *
Senate Republicans have made the point that if the Affordable Care Act is working as advertised, the state shouldn’t have to pay for cancer screening and indigent health care programs. House Democrats have said those programs still are needed to help those who fall through the cracks.

KCTCS buildings
The governor’s plan was to allow the college campuses to get a new building project if the college system made the payments on the bonds. That meant KCTCS announcing an extra fee of $4 per credit hour next year and $8 per credit hour the following year to make those payments. The Senate version of the budget said any extra fees collected from a student must be used only for projects at the campus that student attends. Some lawmakers say that’s not sustainable and will prompt students to attend other nearby community colleges that don’t implement the fees. Leeper, however, made his case against any fee increase at Friday evening’s negotiations:

_(Watch mycn2.com for updates on the progress of the budget negotiations on these and other issues on Saturday). _

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