BETWEEN THE AISLES: State budget talks turn into wrestling spectacle

Despite lively deliberations, House speaker says ‘it was a pretty good process’

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

Theatrics are key to both politics and professional wrestling, and this weekend’s state budget discussions had all the trappings of both.

“I thought it was a pretty good process, believe it or not,” House Speaker Greg Stumbo said after lawmakers reached an agreement on the $20.3 billion biennial budget around 5:30 a.m. Sunday. “I mean, it was probably one of the better give-and-takes. It was feisty at times, but that’s just part of the political process.”

“Feisty” is one way to describe it.

Within minutes of sitting down at the negotiating table in front of the press and KET cameras late Saturday morning, lawmakers were shouting at and over one another as tensions reached a fever pitch. 

Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, said the cross-table shouting matches that erupted on political philosophies and national politics reminded him of a professional wrestling contest.

At one point, House Majority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, stood and removed his sport coat. As Stumbo said at the onset of the political brouhaha, “Let’s get it on.”

Would anyone watching Stumbo and Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer yell at each other about President Barack Obama, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes and President George W. Bush have been surprised if Stumbo tried to slap a figure-four leg lock on Thayer, or if Thayer attempted to body slam the speaker onto the negotiating table?

To make Sinnette’s simile a reality, perhaps two years from now lawmakers could consider combining the two soap operas during the next round of budget negotiations. The main event could be held at the Frankfort Convention Center — the capital city’s Madison Square Garden — with total, veto-proof control of the budget on the line. 

With enough promotion and a catchy title, the event could prove a draw and help the state’s bottom line. Based on their vote totals from the 2012 election cycle and the political interest in Frankfort, certainly more than enough patrons would be willing to shell out $5 admission to see “Rowdy” Greg Stumbo and Robert “The Bruiser” Stivers wage war for control of the state’s purse strings within the confines of a steel cage. The 5,000-seat convention center would sell out in a heartbeat, in all likelihood.

Of course, such an event could never take place. There are constitutional issues with putting the budget at stake in a professional wrestling match, after all.

But it would provide plenty of entertainment to supplement the political back-and-forth that inevitably occurs on the Capitol grounds this time of year.

“I think everybody saw that we have worked hard over the last three or four days,” Senate President Robert Stivers said. 

“There’s been a lot of discussions. At points in time, there may have been a little bit of political theater involved, but tonight we’ve reached an agreement, compromising and understanding the realities of each person’s positions, each region’s positions and each party’s positions.”

Legislators on the budget conference committee met from 11:30 a.m. Saturday to 5:30 a.m. Sunday, with most of the negotiations happening behind closed doors. The Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate met somewhere in the middle on many differences between their versions of the biennial budget, and lawmakers left the negotiating table with no visible cuts, bruises or broken bones.

Kentucky’s public universities, for instance, will see their budgets cut 1.5 percent with two capital projects available through General Fund and university bonds.

The House had set reductions at 2.5 percent, but its version included more than $1.2 billion in bonded projects. The Senate’s budget offered no cuts, while all but two university projects funded through the sale of bonds were slashed from its version of the spending plan.

For Kentucky’s community college network, lawmakers set a 1.5 percent cut with several agency-bonded projects available. Each campus would be required to set a fee of up to $8 per student to help finance the debt.

Both sides held firm on Gov. Steve Beshear’s request to increase SEEK funding for K-12 public schools, and raises for teachers and school employees will be mandatory for all school districts — 1 percent in fiscal year 2015 and 2 percent in 2016. The budget includes the House’s provision giving school districts flexibility to shuffle money around to grant those raises.

Settling the state’s spending on primary and secondary education provided one of the highlights of this year’s budget talks, as Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, and Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, came to “some very complicated compromises” in that round of negotiations, said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. 

The largest gulf between the two chambers — bonded projects and fund transfers — was bridged by looking at points A and B in each version of the budget and finding a midpoint 

Lawmakers weren’t sure exactly where Kentucky’s debt ratio would stand once the budget is enacted, but Stivers said it would likely be in the neighborhood of 6.6 percent — less than the House’s 7.05 percent but more than the Senate’s 6.26 percent. 

On fund transfers and the structural imbalance, lawmakers said that, too, was negotiated toward middle ground. “We kind of compromised and reached out, and everything went to the middle,” said Stivers, R-Manchester.

The House and Senate will consider the compromise package today before breaking for a 10-day veto recess. Conference committees still have work to do, though, with a gas tax rate floor increase, six-year road plan, and the Transportation Cabinet’s budget and more to settle.

Stumbo predicted both chambers would approve the executive branch budget without much resistance today.

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