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Senate Budget Hews Close To Bevin Plan, Restores Cuts

Josh James

Senate Republicans reinstated many of Gov. Bevin's budget cuts in their version of the biennial spending plan, setting the stage for a face off with the Democratic-led House in the coming week.

If the Senate executive budget has a theme, Appropriations and Revenue Committee chair Chris McDaniel said it's this: "You can't invest in the future if you don't address the problems that confront you today."

To that end, the spending plan restores many of the nine percent back-to-back annual cuts in Bevin's budget - including for public universities and colleges, preschool services, and constitutional officers - with the goal of pouring $350 million more into pensions than the governor proposed. The budget stays silent, however, on Bevin's 4.5 percent current year reductions, which Senate leaders indicate the governor could implement and tweak on his own.

Republicans also touted their plan as "structurally balanced," in contrast to the House budget, which they've criticized for utilizing one-time funds for recurring expenses. Senate President Robert Stivers argued the Senate approach lays the groundwork for sessions to come.

"Can we do this next year? And the year after? Yes we can, because we didn't use one-time dollars," he told reporters. 

Stivers also stressed that the higher education cuts only pertain to the state appropriation for universities, which he said make up roughly 20 percent of their overall budget. When factored out, he said, the reductions amount to about two percent of the schools' total funding.

During the committee debate, Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey worried aloud about the effect on postsecondary education in the commonwealth and pressed colleagues to consider legalizing casino gambling or other avenues to bolster state coffers rather than slashing state spending.

"We have not explored those options to get new revenue into the budget at a time when it appears we desperately need it," he said.

The meeting also saw bipartisan complaints about the breakneck pace of budget talks, which are scheduled to wrap up early next week.

"This is probably the second most important document this state has after the Constitution and the idea that the Senate would get this bill and have five days to put a budget together... this is appalling to me," said Sen. Danny Carroll, a Republican from Paducah.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Sen. Reggie Thomas (D-Lexington) rails against education cuts and the removal of $60 million in bonds for Lexington Convention Center

Lexington on the Losing End?

Before casting his no vote, Sen. Reggie Thomas described Lexington as the "the real loser" Wednesday. In addition to reinstated cuts to the state appropriation for the University of Kentucky and other public education institutions, the upper chamber also stripped out a provision issuing $60 million in bonds for renovations of the Lexington Convention Center.

Thomas was blunt in his assessment, telling fellow lawmakers, "What this Senate budget does... is that it shoots a hole in the heart of the city of Lexington and our growth will be retarded. And I can't in good conscience support that for the city of Lexington."

If revived during House and Senate budget negotiations, the financing plan would allow Lexington to hike its hotel tax by 2.5 percent to help fund the $250 million dollar proposed overhaul of the center. Senate President Robert Stivers sounded a skeptical note, saying the city has run surpluses in recent years and put those dollars toward other projects - including $12 million recently approved for the renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse.

"Tell me when I have added these totals up why they need that money, why they cannot finance it with their current revenue structure," he said.

The General Assembly approved a similar funding plan for the convention center in Louisville in 2014, though Stivers says that vote only allowed a preexisting tax to be directed to the project. 

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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