By Todd Duvall
Education spending. Road building. Two of the top three or four major state spending issues became the roadblock last week to crafting an $18 billion two-year state budget acceptable to the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Earlier, House and Senate leaders, meeting behind closed and guarded doors here for much of the week, hammered together a higher education spending plan that moves the University of Kentucky forward toward its goal of becoming a top 20 research institution nationally, at the same time giving needed new funding to the University of Louisville, the regional state universities and the community and technical colleges.
They came to terms on appropriating funds to pay off $75 million in bonds for a new arena in downtown Louisville without getting into the ongoing wrangle over where the arena is to be located.
In the end, it was the urgent need for more money for public schools and for transportation projects that delayed the joint budget committee from reaching a timely agreement.
Pay raises for public school teachers have been at the top of the legislative agenda for Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly. The issue was how much the state can afford for raises in the next two school years.
The problem has been growing in recent years as teacher salaries in Kentucky fell further behind salaries paid in surrounding states, leading to an alarming exodus of good teachers to better-paying jobs elsewhere.
The solution isnt the best possible, but probably as good as Kentucky teachers can expect given the limited amount of money available in the new budget. Teachers will receive a 2 percent raise in 2006-2007, nothing to rush out and buy a new car with. But the following school year, raises will be $3,000 across the board. That second year raise should at least move Kentucky salaries close to parity with salaries in nearby states.
Senate budget negotiators wanted to follow Fletchers lead in adding two additional instructional days to the 175-day school calendar. Since Kentucky has one of the shortest school years among neighboring states, those two extra days seem only reasonable, indeed necessary if Kentucky students are to be competitive with their neighbors around them.
As for the issue involving transportation spending, the differences between the House and Senate involved how much and how to raise the money.
The key problem centers on Kentuckys commitment to help finance construction of two new Ohio River bridges at Louisville, a project in discussion for a decade and one that will be another decade to complete.
Those bridges will eat up a huge amount of available gasoline tax revenue during the construction period that otherwise would be available for road projects throughout the rest of the state.
The Senate wanted to borrow about $750 million to finance those statewide projects. The House wanted only about half that amount in new bonded debt.
The Senate proposed paying for the projects by making permanent a 1.1-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase from last year and another 1.2-cent increase anticipated for this coming summer when gas prices are expected to rise.
House Democrats werent having anything of it, since Republican opponents branding them as heavy taxers at election time have burned them before.
Since the price of gasoline at the pump these days can vary a dime or two a gallon from morning to night, few motorists are going to notice a penny extra or understand where it is going.
And anyone who has driven Kentuckys pothole-pitted highways surely cannot begrudge another penny at the pump to fill some of those potholes.
So, will this new budget meet the needs of Kentuckys roughly four million citizens?
Not really. At best it inches the state forward a bit without inflicting irreparable harm. It puts off addressing a number of pressing issues for another legislature to consider.
But it is infinitely better than having no budget at all, which was the case in 2002 and 2004. That came dangerously close to inflicting irreparable harm on the people of Kentucky.