Definition of debt in budget will be debate point among Senate majority caucus

03/16/2014 07:12 PM

Senate Republicans will have to decide whether college buildings, many of which will be paid off by increased student fees, will count toward the unofficial debt total in the next two-year spending plan.

The debt level and the potential to restore cuts to other programs, such as the Kentucky state police and university budgets, will be among the major themes of the discussions among senators over the next two weeks, the Senate’s budget chairman told Pure Politics on Friday.

The Senate received the $20 billion two-year budget bill on Thursday from the House. It contains nearly all of the projects Gov. Steve Beshear initially proposed in January.

Many Republicans have expressed concern with the amount of projects Beshear proposed to pay for by selling bonds. The amount going to pay off those bond amounts to about 7 percent of the revenue the state brings in. In the past, the General Assembly has tried to keep that below 6 percent.

Among the buildings counted in the calculation are buildings at the 16 Kentucky Community and Technical College campuses around the state. Those will be paid off, in part, by an increase in student tuition of up to $8 per credit hour by next year, as KCTCS leaders said .

Sen. Bob Leeper, the Paducah independent who chairs the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said the debt level is his biggest concern because he doesn’t want to sign off on a budget that ties the hands of future General Assemblies. If too much money is paying off bonds for the next 30 years, that’s less money available to pay for teachers and education programs, he said.

Reducing debt has been a priority for many Senate Republicans.

But the author of a bill to put a hard cap on the debt level — Sen. Joe Bowen, R-Owensboro — has said education buildings shouldn’t count toward that cap if the school districts or community colleges or universities have designated revenue to pay off the bonds.

The Owensboro Community and Technical College would be allowed to complete the second phase of an advanced technology center at a cost of $9 million under Beshear’s budget proposal, which passed through the House last week.

For the last several years, Bowen has sponsored a measure to put a 6 percent debt cap on the budget. Here’s what he said about his bill and the “carve out” for education buildings.

Beyond the debate over debt and restoring the 2.5 percent cuts to public universities’ operating budgets, Leeper said some senators want to make sure public protection is fully funded.

That includes the state police, whose ranks have shrunk to the lowest level in three decades. The Kentucky State Police is slated for another 2.5 cut under the budget proposed by Beshear and approved by the House.

Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer already laid off 20 veteran officers he had brought back out of retirement to help with the workload.

Leeper said the agency is among the “very real needs” that will be debated.

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