Education focus of early budget talks as lawmakers break for Easter weekend

03/25/2016 11:30 PM

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers left the Capitol Friday with plenty of budgetary ideas to ponder as Senate and House leaders explained some of their larger proposals, particularly those affecting higher education, for more than three hours Friday.

That will leave the budget conference committee with about 14 hours to formally work Monday, when the 19-member panel is set to reconvene at 10 a.m. Legislative staff has said they’ll need a document by midnight in order to get a budget passed by Wednesday, when legislators leave Frankfort for a vote recess before returning April 11.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he felt confident that the conference committee would meet its midnight deadline Monday.

“I’ve been through these a long time,” he said. “I’ve been doing budgets since 1985 I guess, except for the four years I was attorney general, and this is off to a good start in my judgment.”

Proposed higher education policies consumed much of the committee’s debate. Senate President Pro Tem David Givens, R-Greensburg, answered questions from House Democrats about the Senate’s suggested performance-based funding for state colleges and universities.

The Senate recommended that 25 percent of postsecondary institutions’ funding in fiscal year 2018 be tied to individual and group performance, with schools broken into three groups and Kentucky State University, which faces significant issues, exempt from the plan.

The Senate’s version of the budget bill, House Bill 303, also restores Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed 9 percent cuts over the biennium and does not address his suggested 4.5 percent spending reductions in the current fiscal year.

That was a point of contention for House Speaker Pro Tem Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green.

“I might could understand this a whole lot better if at the same time we weren’t cutting universities by, in your all’s budget, four and a half, nine and nine (percent),” he said. “You undoubtedly are setting up the universities for failure when you do what you’re doing. You’re setting them up for failure.”

Others also asked about potential tuition increases caused by the outcomes-based funding model, but Givens said he didn’t foresee any “significant” action on that front because of the Senate’s proposal.

He noted that university presidents shouldn’t be caught off guard given the legislature’s discussions on the topic in recent sessions. The Council on Postsecondary Education suggested its own performance-based method, but that would have only applied to about $87 million in new money rather than the 25 percent in baseline funding proposed in the Senate.

“I think this is actually the third budget cycle that we’ve talked about it,” Givens said. “Universities have seen this coming for a number of years. With 32 states already doing it, Tennessee having done it for 25 years, these university presidents knew it was coming.

“It was just a matter of when we were going to finally say avoid that resistance to change. Let’s do it, and I argue that this is the place to do it.”

On the House’s proposed Work Ready Kentucky scholarship program to plug any scholarship holes for free tuition to in-state students enrolling in community or technical colleges, lawmakers traded ideas on expanding the program to include associate-degree programs at four-year public and private institutions.

House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said CPE estimated such an expansion would cost $5 million over the biennium and the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority pegged that number at more than $5.5 million.

“The Tennessee Promise does include these associate degrees at four-year institutions,” he said.

The $33 million proposal calls for in-state students enrolling straight out of high school or by age 19 if they receive a GED to maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.

Givens suggested looking at the fiscal impact of raising the mandatory GPA to 2.5 over four semester rather than six in the current plan, and Senate President Robert Stivers expressed his concerns about the portability of credits earned at an institution if a student wants to transfer to another in-state school.

“If we try to set up a system like that, I think you have to make sure that it is seamless, that it is transferrable because then you have basically made a promise that you haven’t fulfilled,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “Because if you’re saying this is a stepping stone to a four-year degree then eight or ten of those credits don’t transfer, then you’ve made a promise you don’t fulfill.”

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, also asked that the committee consider making students repay their Work Ready Kentucky awards if they drop out.

The committee also discussed settlement agreements between Johnson & Johnson and PurdueP harma,
makers of OxyContin, and a recommendation to steer the state’s 44 optometry school slots to the Kentucky College of Optometry at the University of Pikeville.

Even with a tight deadline on Monday, Stumbo said he expects lawmakers will mostly honor the Easter weekend.

“I do think there’s a lot of room to find some middle ground,” he said.


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