Education is still a focus of House budget proposal

Votes expected on House floor Wednesday

By Kevin Wheatley, Published:

The House Appropriations and Revenue Committee advanced biennial budgets for all three branches of state government, tweaking some proposals from Gov. Steve Beshear as the chamber prepares floor votes on the measures today.

The $20.3 billion two-year executive branch budget garnered the most attention in Tuesday’s committee meeting, though discussion steered clear of reductions in Beshear’s spending proposal to boost preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds in low-income families and purchase new textbooks for K-12 public schools.

Each initiative is about $10 million less than proposed by the governor, who made education funding a central focus of his budget plan.

Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat and chairman of the committee, said the House’s version of the budget cut proposed spending in those areas while wrangling with “a $40 million hole we had to fill.”

Much of that hole was created in the chamber’s decision to restore $31.8 million in funding for property valuation administrators in lieu of increasing fees on special taxing districts as recommended by Beshear and a $10 million funding boost in the legislative branch’s budget to cover staff pay raises and increasing retirement contributions, Rand said.

“That’s one of the ways we were able to accomplish that,” he said, noting the House budget still directs $26 million to offer preschool services to children in families with incomes within 160 percent of the federal poverty level.

Rep. Kelly Flood, chairwoman of the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary/Secondary Education, said with extra funding directed by Beshear toward education initiatives and a $40 million hole in the House’s spending proposal, the budget for primary and secondary education had more money available than other areas of state government.

Many pieces cut from the House budget will be funded in other ways, said Flood, D-Lexington.

Although $10 million was cut from Beshear’s proposal for new textbooks, Flood said the House plan includes a $50 million bond in fiscal year 2016 to help upgrade instructional devices in public schools.

The first $5 million from the bond issue would be dedicated to upgrading the Kentucky Education Network to allow the state to improve its education technology and shift toward digital learning tools.

“How can we invest all of this money in textbooks and content online when we haven’t even laid the groundwork?” she asked. “That’s what we’re doing.”

A $100 million state-federal program in the next two to three years will also improve broadband access in eastern Kentucky schools, she said.

The state is also implementing the STARS quality rating system for preschools, which is “six months away from being in the kind of shape it needs” for a statewide rollout, Flood said. Enough money is budgeted in the House plan to ensure about 5,800 new, low-income students are enrolled in preschool.

About $84 million in flexible spending would be available to districts for areas such as professional development, materials and school safety, she added.

While some aspects of the House’s education budget had lower general fund support than proposed by Beshear, the plan maintains the governor’s recommended per-pupil SEEK funding of $3,911 in fiscal year 2015 and $3,981 in fiscal year 2016.

“I think that was important to all of us here,” said Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, a retired teacher and chairman of the House education committee.

Beshear’s staff is reviewing changes made in the House budget bill, said Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.

“Overall the governor is pleased that the committee agrees with his commitment to supporting education, job creation and better health for our citizens,” Richardson said in a statement. “We will continue to discuss these changes and any others made with both the House and Senate as the bill continues to move through the process.”

The $20.3 billion executive branch spending plan, which passed 20-3 with eight “pass” votes in the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Tuesday, includes tiered pay raises for state workers, either 2.5 percent or 5 percent cuts to a number of agencies and more than $207 million in additional pension contributions.

The committee also unanimously passed a $775.6 million judicial branch budget, which includes pay raises for employees, excluding judges, and a $116.7 million legislative branch budget, which includes salary increases for Legislative Research Commission workers similar to those proposed for state workers.

A revenue bill also passed 19-3 with nine “pass” votes. The bill would allow the state to apply a 2 percent pari-mutuel tax on “instant racing” machines, raise the motor fuels tax 1.5 percents per gallon in the first quarter of 2014 and 2.2 cents per gallon effective April 1, cap film industry tax credits at $1 million, and allow the Kentucky Lottery Corp. to advertise how proceeds are used.

The measure would also resolve a court dispute regarding library tax rates by retroactively approving rates set by library boards established via voter referendum.

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