FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear proposed spending increases for public education from kindergarten through college and for health care in a state budget plan that avoids cuts and counts on limited new revenues from taxes on cigarettes and sports betting.
In a speech Tuesday evening before the Republican-led legislature, the Democratic governor proposed a $2,000 pay raise for every public school teacher, fulfilling a campaign pledge.
Beshear called for a 1% increase in the state's school funding formula, known as SEEK, for public K-12 schools. That would inject about $87 million more into schools in the next two years. Base per-pupil funding would rise by $40 to $4,040 per year. Beshear's plan seeks to restore $22 million for textbook costs over two years.
"Public education is not only the key to breaking cycles of poverty for our families, it is the key to leaping forward as a state," the governor said. "The most important profession, the most important title in Kentucky is 'teacher,' and it is time we invest in them."
A crowd of teachers gathered near the House chamber to show support for Beshear as he presented what he called an "education first" budget. Jeni Ward Bolander, a high school history teacher from Lexington, called it the "probably first ray of hope we've had in four years."
For public universities, which have absorbed repeated cuts for more than a decade, the governor's budget calls for a 1% spending increase for all postsecondary education institutions.
Beshear, who floated an ambitious wish-list for the state during last year's campaign, unveiled more modest proposals to reflect the state's many pressing needs and projections for meager revenue growth in the next two years. Overall General Fund spending would increase by 1.5% in the first year and another 2.4% in the second year under his budget blueprint.
Beshear said his budget contains no General Fund spending cuts for the first time in 14 years. The plan calls for raising salaries for state employees and hiring hundreds of additional social workers to combat child abuse.
"It is a budget that not only ends years of painful cuts, it also makes a major investment in public education, fully funds expanded Medicaid, makes a historic investment in protecting our children, directs dollars to breaking cycles of poverty, and I believe will move us forward as a people," he said.
Now that Beshear has presented his spending plan, the work shifts to the Republican-dominated legislature to pass a budget during this year's session, which ends in mid-April. Lawmakers will "dig into these numbers" as they put their imprint on the budget, House Speaker David Osborne said.
Asked for his first impressions of Beshear's proposals, Osborne replied: "Apparently we are more flush with cash than we possibly imagined that we were coming into it."
The speaker raised concerns that the governor didn't propose more money to implement a sweeping school safety law enacted last year.
Beshear's plan leaves the state's sales and income tax rates unchanged, and he didn't factor in any money from legalizing casino gambling, a proposal he championed as a candidate but which has been declared a nonstarter by some top Republican lawmakers.
Instead, Beshear's budget plan assumes new revenues from a 10-cent increase in the cigarette tax, a tax on e-cigarettes and the legalization of sports betting, a proposal awaiting a House vote.
Beshear's spending plan fully funds the state's Medicaid program, including the Medicaid expansion started when his father, Steve Beshear, was governor. The expansion added hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians to the Medicaid rolls. Kentucky's portion of covering its expanded Medicaid population will increase from 8.5% to 10%.
The governor's budget includes an additional $38.9 million from the state's General Fund in the next year and $199 million the following year to fully fund Medicaid and the expansion.
"Access to health care is a basic human right and we can't turn our backs on the progress that we've made," Andy Beshear said. "That's why we're fully funding expanded Medicaid in this budget and we'll work to sign up every single person who qualifies."
Beshear proposed a 1% pay raise for state employees in each year of the two-year budget cycle. He committed to paying the full contribution required on state employees' pensions, which were long underfunded.
Continuing his focus on combating abuse and neglect during his tenure as attorney general, Beshear proposed adding 350 social workers in child protective services. The nearly 30% staffing boost would help ease bloated case loads for social workers.
To help implement the state's 2019 school safety law, Beshear proposed $18.2 million in bond funding to finance school building upgrades. It reflects his belief that funding will have to occur in phases to carry out the safety law that also called for new resource officers and counselors.
Osborne chided the governor for the amount of proposed school-safety funding.
"I think for him to walk onto this floor, present a budget that funds his campaign promises to certain constituencies without funding the most important services that we can provide — the safety of our children — it causes me some concerns."