Senate GOP ready to mark up budget, but House Democrats will stick to mid-March schedule for vote on bill

02/20/2016 07:12 PM

FRANKFORT — Monday will make the 32nd day of this year’s 60-day budget session, and Senate Republicans are anxious to get their hands on the $21.8 billion biennial spending plan.

Senate President Robert Stivers, who on Thursday took to the Senate floor alongside Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Chris McDaniel to urge the House of Representatives to expedite its work in marking up the budget, said Friday that the upper chamber is ready to put its stamp on the budget bill, House Bill 303.

Stivers said the Senate has deferred budget staffers in the Legislative Research Commission to the Democrat-led House as it drafts its version of the two-year spending proposal, and he would prefer delivery of the legislation in the first week of March rather than the expected mid-March vote on the House floor.

At this point, it’s premature to talk specifics on the Senate’s budget plans, the Manchester Republican said.

“There’s going to be an interesting discussion, and we will react to what the House does,” Stivers told reporters. “We may, and the governor may be in agreement with some of the House moves.”

“I think we have to be open to arguments and persuasion and not just draw lines in the sand,” he added.

House leaders, however, say they have no plans to hurry their plans in amending Gov. Matt Bevin’s two-year spending plan, which relies on 4.5 percent cuts in the current fiscal year and 9 percent over the next two fiscal years totaling $650 million in part to fund higher contributions to the state’s beleaguered pension funds for teachers and most state workers.

Bevin spared a number of areas from spending reductions, offering pay raises for state police, correctional officers and social workers, a $100 million bond pool for workforce development projects, and $4.5 million to alleviate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement’s possession, among other items in his budget.

The House, under state law, gets the first opportunity to mark up the governor’s budget proposal, and a biennial spending plan must be passed by April 15. House Speaker Greg Stumbo reiterated Friday that the Senate can expect a budget by March 15.

House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Rick Rand said Bevin gave the General Assembly “a radical budget” to consider.

“We’re going to take our time and have public hearings,” said Rand, D-Bedford.

“A lot’s coming out about this budget. The university presidents think it’s bad, and we are having interest group after interest group letting us know how it’s going to negatively affect their budgets. Those people need to be heard, and we’re going to take our time and do it, and the Senate will get the budget in plenty of time to do their work on it.”

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the House’s budget review subcommittees have held open hearings on the budget, so the Senate should not be caught off guard by the version of HB 303 it receives from the lower chamber. He suggested that the Senate could begin its series of budget hearings, which it has but not at the House’s pace.

Specifics have been lacking from the administration, Stumbo said, “and we continue to discover things.”

“For example, just yesterday I learned that county clerks in counties that have a population of less than 20,000 would be stripped of about $60,000 from their budgets by the governor’s sweeping of those accounts, which he had told that he had not intended to do that,” he said Friday.

“I’m not sure if they intentionally intended to do that or whether it was an oversight, so there’s a lot of questions we have to ask, and we owe it to the people of Kentucky, as Chairman Rand said, to hold full and fair hearings on this entire process.”

Stivers, who noted that he did not want to politicize the budget-writing process, said the House could face a difficult time mustering the 51 votes needed to pass its version of the budget. Democrats hold a 50-46 majority in the chamber, and one of the majority caucus members, Rep. Tom McKee, of Cynthiana, underwent heart surgery on Wednesday.

“The reality is they only have 49 votes in the House now, so are they going to be able to have two Republicans?” Stivers said.

“Are they going to be able to hold their whole 49? I don’t know. I don’t know, but that’s where I say there’s probably going to have to be some working in concert with the House Republicans to come up with something that would receive what I believe has to be a constitutional vote of 51.”

But Stumbo disagreed, saying that past budgets have received overwhelming votes out of the chamber. He expects the same this year, he said.

“We’ll have a, hopefully a document that’ll be a bipartisanly accepted document,” he said.

Budget votes have tightened some as the Democratic majority in the House has declined.

The results of four special elections March 8 could tilt Democrats and the GOP into a 50-50 tie before a budget vote, another factor that could further complicate matters.

In 2008, the House’s first version of the budget bill passed by an 84-14 vote. The next budget-writing session in 2010, the chamber’s biennial spending plan cleared on a 65-33 vote, and in 2012, the House’s initial budget vote jumped to 78-17.

The House’s first budget in 2014 barely received enough votes to clear the chamber with a 53-46 result, as two Democrats and two Republicans broke party ranks in casting their votes on that bill.

This year, university presidents have been among the most critical of Bevin’s spending proposal.

Stivers, however, said many agencies will have to deal with lower budgets as more funds are dedicated to public pensions and Medicaid, particularly as the state begins to pay its share of the expansion under former Gov. Steve Beshear and deals with the so-called woodwork effect in which more traditional Medicaid recipients enrolled in the program amid higher public awareness.

Of the $275.8 million growth in overall Medicaid spending totaling $10.8 billion in fiscal year 2017, 65 percent comes from $179.7 million in new General Fund appropriations.

The state’s share of $485.7 million in new Medicaid spending the next fiscal year is expected to drop, with just $199.7 million, or 41 percent of the increase, budgeted from the General Fund. Kentucky will ultimately spend $11.3 billion in Medicaid benefits in fiscal year 2018, with $8.7 billion of that total coming from the federal government.

Bevin’s staff has also identified about $57 million in unreported operating expenses for the state’s health benefit exchange, kynect, Stivers said.

“I heard many members over here of my Democrat colleagues talk about, ‘Well we can’t cut this, we can’t cut that,’” he said. “Go ask them what tax they’re going to raise. Speaker Stumbo has said no raising of taxes. That’s fine with us; that’s consistent with us.

“Go ask (Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray) Jones what tax is he going to raise to fund all these things. Has anybody asked him that question? Because I’m getting ready to.”


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