BETWEEN THE AISLES: State budget now in Senate’s hands

Committee is expected to tackle the numbers today

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

The proposed $20.3 billion biennial state budget now rests in the hands of the Senate, where Republican leaders are keeping private — for now — their revisions to the Democrat-led House’s version of the two-year spending plan.

Sen. Bob Leeper, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said senators have been marking up Gov. Steve Beshear’s recommended budget with the understanding that the House’s plan would largely follow the governor’s funding proposals.

Senators planned to work over the weekend to cobble together their version of the $20.3 billion spending plan after the House passed the budget bill 53-46 Thursday, said Leeper, I-Paducah. 

The Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee is expected to hear the budget today upon adjournment, he said.

While Leeper did not disclose specifics, it’s clear the two chambers will have some items to discuss when House Bill 235 reaches a conference committee. 

The Senate’s budget chairman said his chamber will apply a “fiscally responsible mindset” in crafting a spending plan, noting concerns with the proposed biennial budget’s structural imbalance and debt ratio — about $230 million and 7 percent, respectively, in HB 235 as amended by the House.

“Obviously we are very conscious of our structural imbalance,” Leeper said. “We’ve taken that very serious in years past, and we still consider that to be an important issue. Our debt ratio’s important. That debt level sets the base, and that makes it harder in future years to do the things we want to do for our employees and our citizens who have true needs.”

Senate President Robert Stivers echoed Leeper’s comments, saying there has been “a pretty notable contrast” in recent history between the House and Senate versions of the budget. 

“We want to have reasonable debt,” said Stivers, R-Manchester. “We want to limit our structural imbalance and fund those things such as education that are in an appropriate way that we have always felt significant and have high importance on.”

House Speaker Greg Stumbo declined to speculate on the differences between the chambers’ spending priorities without seeing the Senate’s proposed biennial budget. He said Beshear has guided the state with “a very steady hand” through the “terrible” economic recession that has had a global impact.

“These are his recommendations; we think they’re very prudent,” said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. “I trust his judgment, and as you saw, the House backs up his judgment on these various proposals in increasing funding for education, increasing funding in specific areas for some construction at our universities, and providing the restoration of monies for the child care program and so on and so forth.

“To do that, in recessionary times, is a challenge, so the governor has done some things which aren’t unprecedented.”

While some contend that Beshear’s proposed one-time fund transfers equal a structural imbalance, Stumbo disagrees. Those agency revenuefunds replenish over time, he said, adding Beshear “quite artfully, I think, shifted monies to vital areas.”

The Senate will have more time to work on this budget than in years past, Stivers said after confirmation from his staff. And although specifics have been short thus far, expect to see the state Department of Agriculture treated differently in the Senate’s spending plan after the House added a mandate in fiscal year 2015 that the department, headed by potential Republican gubernatorial candidate James Comer, spend $500,000 in restricted funds on diabetes education.

Democratic Rep. John Will Stacy, chairman of the subcommittee that crafted Comer’s budget, said during a committee hearing Tuesday that the department would be directed to partner with health departments on diabetes education programs for schools as part of the agency’s child nutrition program.

Stumbo said the House was not “out to do anything to Commissioner Comer” with the budget item.

Stivers, however, called the move “maybe one of the more irresponsible things I’ve seen in my 17 years up here.

“I understand political pandering and political positioning, but that went beyond the realm of either,” he said.

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