A more bountiful state budget and a more strict safety net were part of Wednesday's legislative rush
With hours to go before bills land on the governor's desk for possible vetoes, the Kentucky General Assembly delivered a two-year-budget, along with bills affecting public benefits and libraries.
With billions in surplus dollars allowing for generous state worker raises, more investment in education, and payments into the state's retirement systems, passage of the budget was less contentious than in previous years — though Democrats argued the legislature could have opted for bolder investments.
Discussing the executive budget, the chamber's top Democrat, Morgan McGarvey, applauded increases in the state's per-pupil funding, pay bumps for state employees, and increases in social workers, but he went on to say the budget is a "missed opportunity."
He asked why the state didn't opt for universal pre-K, incentives for renewable energy, or raising cost-of-living adjustments for retirees.
"And I say we could have done all this because there's a billion dollars of unspent General Fund revenue in this budget for tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest Kentuckians."Sen. Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville)
Responding, GOP floor leader Damon Thayer said just because there is a surplus doesn't mean the legislature has to spend it.
"We have to remember where this money comes from," the Georgetown Republican cautioned. "It comes from the taxpayers. It comes from the hard-working people of Kentucky who every week have money taken out of their paycheck, sent to this town for us to decide how to spend."
One controversial bill that drew criticism despite being scaled back was House Bill 7, a measure placing more restrictions on public benefits. Proponents say the changes are necessary to root out fraud, while opponents worry it will stop some eligible Kentuckians from accessing Medicaid and food benefits.
Facing pressure to ease some of the provisions in the reforms, Republicans offered up a version that lessened some concerns that the bill might punish low-income Kentuckians who rely on the safety net. But in the final House debate, Democrat Angie Hatton said she's still more worried about the effects of the bill than the problem it purports to solve.
"It doesn't keep me up at night worrying that there's a tiny percentage of people who might get benefits who didn't deserve them," she said. "What keeps me up at night is worrying that there might be people hungry who couldn't jump through hoops and get their benefits."
But that characterization of the bill didn't go unanswered.
"It is not simply just a small percentage of folks who have been improperly enrolled."Rep. David Meade (R-Stanford)
Citing discussions with the UK Gatton College of Business and Economics, Rep. David Meade — the bill's sponsor — said studies have shown fraud does carry a cost. In addition to federal costs, Meade said improper Medicaid enrollments cost Kentucky taxpayer $186 million per year.
Lawmakers also passed a bill giving county judge-executives the power to appoint members of library boards in most Kentucky counties, excluding systems in Lexington and Louisville. Backers argue libraries levy property taxes and should be accountable to elected officials, while critics worry the move will inject politics into library systems as controversies surrounding books and censorship are on the rise.
The Kentucky House also took time to honor members who are not seeking another term, including Lexington Democrat Kelly Flood — whom Rep. Attica Scott praised as a lawmaker who never backed down.
"The lady from Fayette 75 has been the soul of this body for many years," Scott said. "She has never wavered in her commitment to community."
Flood is one of seven Democrats in the chamber who won't be back next session.
All eyes are now on the governor as he mulls vetoes. Lawmakers will get a chance to override those vetoes when they return for two more days in April.