Senate's version of budget slashes debt -- including Rupp renovations -- but keeps social worker funding

03/22/2012 07:14 PM

Projects funded by bonds, and thus debt, were the primary targets of the state Senate’s budget revisions, but the spending bill that passed the Senate maintains recommended funding levels for education and keeps extra money for social workers.

Senators approved the more than $18 billion two-year spending plan by a 32-4 vote just after 7 p.m. Thursday after a brief discussion on the chamber’s floor. The few questions and floor speeches as the budget bill came up stood in stark contrast to past budget debates that led to marathon discussions on the floor and a more divided vote.

Just four senators – Democrats Walter Blevins of Morehead, Perry Clark of Louisville and Kathy Stein of Lexington and Republican John Schickel – voted “no.”

The budget, which Republican leaders first unveiled behind closed doors to the other senators Thursday afternoon, cuts the total level of proposed debt to $391.3 million over two years. That’s down from $552.5 million over the biennium that the House-approved budget included.

Among the project funding the Senate scrapped was $3.5 million for downtown development in Lexington — which includes a renovation of Rupp Arena — as well as $28.1 million for a new judicial computer network to replace a decades-old system.

But much of the funding levels stayed unchanged from the governor’s budget recommendation and the revised version approved earlier this month by the House. That includes 8.4 percent cuts to most agencies, 6.4 percent cuts to universities and 2.2 percent cuts to the Kentucky State Police, while levels for education, Medicaid and the corrections system remain flat. The Senate version does keep an extra $21 million over the next two years for the hiring of more social workers and support staff.

The Senate did remove $7.5 million the House had left in to expand public funding to help children of low income Kentuckians attend preschool. Sen. Bob Leeper, the Paducah independent who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, told reporters that money was moved to fund other areas because while preschool is “a good program” it’s not the right time to expand it.

Senate Republicans made reducing the debt a priority in their changes and in their floor speeches and they highlighted how this version of the budget cuts the amount of bonds that are used to pay ongoing expenses – known as a “structural imbalance.”

“I believe truly it will move us to a better day quickly,” Leeper said on the floor.

Another Senate budget committee member, retiring Republican Sen. Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs chimed in: “I’m very proud of the decrease of our indebtedness.”

Even Democratic Sen. Tim Shaughnessy of Louisville, who like McGaha is finishing up his final session, rose to congratulate Leeper on lowering the debt.

“It’s been very impressive to see his steady, persistent commitment to bringing that issue under control,” he said.

Shaughnessy, who is known for being the voice of the loyal opposition in the Senate, voted yes.

In a light-hearted way, Shaughnessy did remark that Leeper might have to explain to University of Kentucky basketball fans why the Senate’s budget bill kept in funding for a new roof for the Center for the Arts in Louisville but removed the $3.5 million that would help with the renovation of Rupp. Although he added that it might have been evened out by the Senate eliminating the housing stipend for the lieutenant governor, who happens to be the former mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson.

Democratic Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson, who used to serve on the House budget committee while she was in that chamber, said on the Senate floor she wasn’t happy about the process of the budget and the 25 minutes she and others had to review the budget bill before it landed on the Senate floor.

But even that wasn’t enough to prompt her to vote “no.”

The measure heads back to the House on Friday morning where leaders from both chambers must appoint conference committee members to hash out the differences between the two chambers’ versions. But that committee won’t begin meeting until Monday at the earliest.

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