As Kentucky lawmakers kick off the inaugural day of the 2014 General Assembly, the scope of the state's dire budgetary situation is coming into focus: Legislators will have to find a way to come up with $3.6 billion to fully fund agency budget requests.
Data from the Office of the State Budget Director shows that budget requests from all three branches of state government as well as state agencies totals over $23 billion for the next two fiscal years.
The state’s general fund, however, is expected to have less than $20 billion in revenue.
The state’s budget director, Jane Driskell, has warned that budget cuts are likely.
Gov. Steve Beshear will submit his budget proposal to lawmakers on Jan. 21.
Kentucky’s newest House member was sworn into office Tuesday on the opening day of the 2014 General Assembly session.
Representative Suzanne Miles of Owensboro was also appointed to serve on the House Agriculture, Judiciary, and State Government Committees.
“I’m excited about serving on these committees, and hope to utilize my background as a small business owner, an advocate for our farming community, and my passion for government to help move our Commonwealth forward,” said Rep. Miles.
Miles, a Republican, won a special election in December to serve the remaining term of former Representative John Arnold.
Miles' victory eroded the Kentucky Democratic Party’s margin of control in the House. The Democrats now have 54 seats against the Republicans’ 46.
As temperatures in Kentucky slowly climb out of the polar abyss, so too will state lawmakers emerge from their districts and trek to Frankfort for the opening day of the 2014 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
The session got underway Tuesday.
Kentucky legislators will have until the relatively balmy date of April 15 to craft a biennial state budget, which will be a difficult task: Amid one of the toughest economic outlooks in recent memory, legislators will be forced to grapple with funding priority issues like reinvesting in K-12 education and funding nearly $900 in teachers' pension liabilities.
Many people, from political observers to politicians themselves, have estimated that in order to fully fund these and other priorities, an additional $400 million to $1 billion (or more) in revenue must be raised to plug the gap in spending.
But the state expects only $250 million in additional revenue.
Although the budget will be the front and center issue, here's a glimpse at some other legislative priorities:
Kentucky’s senior U.S. Senator says any extension of long-term unemployment benefits must be paid for by cutting spending elsewhere.
Long-term unemployment compensation expired on December 28. Sixty Senators, mostly Democrats, voted Tuesday to open debate on legislation that would extend the program for three months.
Kentucky Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul voted against the procedure. In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell said the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to improve the job prospects of those looking for work.
"Yes, we should work on solutions to support those who are out of work through no fault of their own. But there is no excuse to pass unemployment insurance legislation without also finding ways to create good, stable, high-paying jobs--and also trying to find the money to pay for it," Sen. McConnell said Tuesday.
A Hopkins County lawmaker is accused of using company money to inappropriately fund campaign activities.
A complaint filed by shareholders of Liberty Rehabilitation alleges that Rep. Ben Waide used over thirty thousand dollars of that business's funds to bankroll campaigning.
Waide is the company’s president, and the suit further alleges the Madisonville Republican used company money to pay for unauthorized massages and a trip to St. Louis with his wife. Further, it claims he pocketed official state travel reimbursements charged to Liberty’s account.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer John Whitfield tells Kentucky Public Radio that Waide’s partners want the money back.
“My clients came to me a couple months ago, and were concerned about what they thought were improprieties going on, in terms of expenses that were being paid by Mr. Waide on behalf of the company. And so, when we got to looking into it, we confirmed that that, indeed, was the case," Whitfield said.
Waide’s attorney Todd P’Pool says the allegations are false and politically motivated.
The suit seeks to reclaim the stolen money plus damages and attorney’s fees.
Kentucky's highest-ranking Republican lawmaker says he will oppose any expanded gambling measure that uses political patronage to garner support.
Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers says while he is not opposed to gaming if it has unified support, he doesn’t want the issue to be advanced by a trade of votes for pet projects.
“I’m not talking about anything that’s illegal. It’s part of the process that somebody gets a road, or if you do this, we think we can do this, you know, the promising of these things in exchange for a vote. That puts us in a worse fiscal position, has the potential to put us in a worse fiscal position than we’re in now. And if that happens I’ll do everything from a policy standpoint to try to stop it.”
Two sets of expanded gaming bills have already been pre-filed in the legislature. Supports say gambling could raise hundreds of millions of dollars in additional tax revenue for the state.
Kentucky’s budget priorities for 2015 could require nearly $1 billion in revenue that the state doesn’t have.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo told a group of business leaders earlier this month that the cost of funding priority issues like education, public employee raises and more could total an estimated $800 million.
“It would probably be more of a number like $700 to $800 million--and some would argue larger than that. It just depends upon how big a bite of the apple you want to take, but I don’t think we can do that.”
Stumbo says the recession is the driving force behind the shortfall, and Kentucky’s economic growth rate will return to pre-recession levels in about two to three years in the absence of tax reform.
Gov. Steve Beshear will submit his budget proposal to the General Assembly next month.
A lawmaker from western Kentucky thinks state leaders should visit the far ends of commonwealth, areas he believes, are sometimes overlooked.
State Representative Kenny Imes has pre-filed legislation for the 2014 session that would require certain non-merit employees, including the governor, to visit two of the most western and most eastern counties before they take office or be appointed to a position.
“Our Commissioner of Agriculture, James Comer, made a pledge to visit all 120 counties in the Commonwealth after taking office. My bill would only require people like the Governor and his staff, his cabinet secretaries, and others to visit two: Fulton and Pike,” said Rep. Imes in a news release. “They represent the people of Fulton and Pike County as equally as they do those living in Fayette and Jefferson, so it’s only right we require they make the effort to visit these regions.”
The leaders would have to get a certificate from the county clerks of Fulton and Pike counties as proof they physically traveled there.
The legislation also requires travel for cabinet secretaries, commissioners, employees of KET, the state highway engineer, and employees of the Council on Postsecondary Education. Those individuals would be required to travel on their own time and could not be reimbursed for travel expenses.