House passes budget over howls of Republicans, who decline to vote at all on bill

03/16/2016 11:45 PM

FRANKFORT — The House of Representatives approved a $21.7 billion biennial budget without a single vote of opposition on Wednesday after Republicans declined to vote on the spending plan.

The 53-0 vote on House Bill 303 followed hours of debate on the House floor as the GOP mounted numerous procedural attempts to amend the budget and cried foul at the lack of coal severance dollars in their districts, criticizing House Speaker Greg Stumbo for sending a letter requesting lists of coal severance projects along with a pledge to support the House’s version of the budget.

Democrats in the lower chamber particularly focused on their efforts to restore K-12 and postsecondary education cuts originally proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin with 4.5 percent spending reductions slated for the current fiscal year and 9 percent over the biennium. SEEK funding for schools had been spared from cuts in Bevin’s proposal.

“I know it’s much easier for me to sell something that I believe in,” said Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

“I’m going to tell you, I believe in this budget. I believe in this budget. I believe it hits all the right notes. I believe it’s about education. I believe that is what brings people out of poverty, it’s what improves their health, it strengthens our families. You name it, mister speaker, and an education helps.”

Democrats freed up money in the budget by scrapping Bevin’s proposal for a $500 fund transfer from the state employees’ health insurance trust to a so-called permanent fund for future pension payments.

Budget writers also diverted less money to the state’s budget reserves and anticipated $268 million more than Bevin in new revenues. Other areas Democrats protected from cuts include constitutional officers, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and Kentucky Educational Television.

They concurred with Bevin’s call to pay more than actuarially required to the underfunded Kentucky Employees Retirement System, which has less than 18 percent of the money needed to meet future pension obligations. That system would get an extra $89.3 million in the biennium.

The Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System would get more than $1 billion in actuarially required contributions in the House’s version of HB 303.

Republicans were critical of the Democrats’ move to erase Bevin’s proposed $500 million fund, particularly since they rely on one-time dollars to make pension contributions in HB 303. Democrats argued that the funds should be used to address pension shortfalls now rather than in the future.

“We’re really missing a great opportunity to take decisive action that will have long-term effects on our pension systems, and I think we will rue the day when we had this opportunity, when the people of Kentucky, every one of us in here have said this is the number one issue, we will rue the day that we didn’t take action in this House of Representatives in 2016,” said House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown.

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, was the lone Republican who successfully tacked on a floor amendment to HB 303 on a 49-46 vote.

The amendment would set $10.5 million in bond funds, part of a match with $19.5 million from the federal government, for a proposed veteran’s center in Bowling Green as Meredith explained, and it would also allow Kentuckians who have won the Congressional Medal of Honor to have their travel and per-diem expenses for veterans’ events covered by the Department of Military Affairs and $400,000 in grants for veterans service organizations.

Other members of his party weren’t so lucky.

Meredith started the floor-amendment marathon, with Republicans failing in six subsequent attempts to offer changes to the biennial spending plan.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, ruled each of the six out of order, including one that was deemed a “piggy back” for having language too similar too another bill filed in the House — the budget bill it was amending. Attempts to suspend the chamber’s rules and consider the amendments anyway failed to reach the 51-vote threshold.

Republicans also complained that Democrats tried to secure their pledged support for HB 303 in exchange for specific coal-severance projects.

“The reason I’m abstaining today is because I received a letter from Speaker Stumbo, and as far as I was concerned it was bullying me to vote for something that I had not read yet, and I will not do that,” said Rep. Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro. “Please do not bully my people.”

Her district includes Union County, the top coal-producing county in the western part of the state that received no coal-severance projects in HB 303.

Other eligible coal-producing counties represented by Republicans who were denied such projects include Webster (Rep. Jim Gooch), Leslie (Rep. Tim Couch), Knox (Rep. Jim Stewart), Whitley (Rep. Regina Bunch), Clay (Couch), Laurel (Rep. Tommy Turner, Rep. Marie Rader, Couch, Stewart and Bunch), McCreary (Rep. Ken Upchurch), McLean (Gooch) and Rockcastle (Rep. Jonathan Shell).

That list will likely look much different once the Republican-led Senate gets its hands on the spending proposal. Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, represents three of those counties — Clay, Knox and Whitley — in his eastern district.

According to a copy of Stumbo’s March 10 letter obtained by Pure Politics, the speaker requested a list of county projects for consideration in the House’s two-year spending proposal as it moves coal severance tax receipts to counties over a four-year period.

He asked for responses no later than 2 p.m. the next day, less than a week before the lower chamber’s budget was unveiled in committee.

“It has been our practice in the past to get a commitment of support for the Committee Substitute from members who wish to have specific funds dedicated to community projects,” Stumbo wrote in the letter. “Please provide a statement indicating your support of a House Committee Substitute which contains your submitted list.”

Asked after the vote about Miles’ comments, Stumbo said he bullied no one in his letter.

“It’s common practice that through the years we’ve asked members if they want to leave their monies in the county funds, and some of them do and some of them don’t,” he said.

“Some of them want to earmark the money so to speak, line-item the monies. We ask all the members if they wanted to and we ask them if they can support the budget if they were allowed to do that, and we all supported that.”

Hoover, however, called the letter “offensive” to the minority caucus.

He said he received the letter as well. His south-central Kentucky district includes part of Pulaski County, which is eligible for coal severance receipts. Other lawmakers in the county include Republican Reps. David Meade, Turner and Upchurch.

“In the 20 years I’ve been here I have never seen nor have I ever heard of a letter from a speaker of the House saying if we don’t get a letter of commitment in writing from you, you’re not going to be able to utilize your coal-severance projects,” Hoover said after the vote on HB 303. “That’s never happened before, never happened before in the 20 years that I’ve been here.”

The House also passed House Bill 423, the biennial revenue bill, on a 63-37 vote; House Bill 306, the judicial branch’s two-year budget, on a 51-48 vote; and House Bill 499, the legislative branch’s biennial budget, on a 69-31 vote.

HB 306 caused some debate with state Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. calling the two-year spending proposal “catastrophic” in a news release ahead of Wednesday’s floor vote.

House budget writers exempted the judicial branch from cuts in the current fiscal year and protected constitutional and statutory court duties from the 9 percent cuts over the biennium, but Minton said his branch will face a $76.9 million shortfall if the House’s plan is enacted.

“I’ve already been in contact with members of the Senate and I will also ask them to exempt the Judicial Branch from further cuts and restore an appropriate level of funding to the court system,” Minton said in a letter to judges and court staffers released Wednesday. “Crippling the courts will have a ripple effect on our justice and law enforcement partners throughout the commonwealth.”

Rand noted that the House appropriated $26 million more than proposed in Bevin’s budget.


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