The Kentucky legislature is responsible for passing the state’s budget — that is, deciding how state money is raised and spent in the commonwealth. No other government official or body can do that job for us.
Up until about four weeks ago it appeared that we lawmakers were not only going to pass a state Executive Branch budget for the next biennium before session’s end, but that we were going to be able to increase funding in much-needed areas. Guaranteed base funding for K-12 education, postsecondary education, social worker recruitment and retention, teacher and state worker pay, and more were expected to get a bit of a boost.
That all changed over the past month or so with the arrival of COVID-19 and its devastating effect on everyday life in the commonwealth. Social distancing required to slow the virus’ spread upended the 2020 Regular Session along with the state’s economy, leaving state lawmakers scrambling to decide how this session’s unprecedented budget process would proceed.
We decided the best course of immediate action was to proceed, with not a two-year Executive Branch budget but a one-year budget to take us through Fiscal Year 2021. A one-year plan would allow us to finish our job without appropriating state funding based on now likely-outdated official state revenue estimates that could cause disruptions in future budget cycles. And it would allow us to make more informed budgetary decisions in the next regular legislative session or, if called by the governor, in special session as the situation begins to stabilize.
The same one-year budget limitation was also applied to the Legislative and Judicial branches and to the budget for the Transportation Cabinet, all which usually receive legislative approval for a two-year spending plan under normal circumstances. It is the Executive Branch budget, however, that includes the most spending and has the greatest impact on our state. So it was the top priority of both chambers, which gave final passage to the one-year plan in an amended House Bill 352 on Wednesday.
The one-year Executive Branch budget in HB 352 is an $11.3 billion general fund spending plan based on so-called “pessimistic” revenue estimates handed down by economic forecasters last December for budget purposes. Although the plan meets state obligations to its public pension systems, it would not provide pay raises for teachers or state workers as we had hoped. Nor would it increase guaranteed base funding (or SEEK) for public schools as planned, instead leaving the base amount at the current level of around $4000 per pupil.
For all that we weren’t able to do in this one-year budget, there are some positives: HB 352 would invest in mental health professionals per school safety requirements found in 2020 Senate Bill 8. And it would meet our commitment under last year’s SB 1, the School Safety and Resiliency Act passed in response to the shootings at Marshall County High School. Additionally, the approved plan would also authorize $47.5 million in bonding authority to assist with construction of four schools listed as priorities for “urgent needs school assistance” by the state.
Other highlights in HB 352 as amended include appropriations of $2.5 million for pediatric research; $17 million received from the Volkswagen emissions settlement appropriated for new school buses and transit buses; reinstatement of a two-percent stop loss in the performance-based funding formula for state postsecondary institutions; $1.6 million in fiscal year 2021 to support medical services at county jails; and debt service for the state Bowling Green Veterans Center, with intent for support of a future facility in Magoffin County, among other spending items.
This is not the budget that we, or many of you, wanted. What it does more than anything else is meets our responsibility to keep state government running for a year with hopes that we can get through this state emergency in better shape than many predict. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to return to Frankfort in January, possibly sooner, and provide budgetary support for fully the next two fiscal years.
That said, our work this session is not entirely over yet. We are now in veto recess, a period of 10 days excluding Sundays during which the governor can veto entire bills or portions of bills, including budget line items. Per a calendar change we are now scheduled to return to Frankfort on Monday, April 13 to consider voting to override any possible vetoes handed down by the governor, with final adjournment still planned at this point for April 15.
Please continue to stay informed of legislative action of interest to you in these remaining days of the session by logging onto the Legislative Research Commission website at legislature.ky.gov or by calling the LRC toll-free Bill Status Line at 866-840-2835. To find out when a committee meeting is scheduled, you can call the LRC toll-free Meeting Information Line at 800-633-9650. If you would like to share your comments or concerns with lawmakers about a bill under consideration this session, you can call the toll-free Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181.
Rep. Chris Freeland, represents the 6th District, which includes Lyon, Marshall and part of McCracken County.