'Borrow and spend' lawmakers


eir opponents in the General Assembly as tax and spend Democrats.

The tactic has been successful in helping the GOP take control of the Kentucky Senate, narrow the Democrats majority in the House of Representatives and propel Republican Ernie Fletcher into the Governors Mansion.

Today, the more appropriate epithet would be borrow and spend, and the phrase applies equally to Republican and Democratic legislators, all but two of whom voted for the new $18.1 billion state budget that contains a record amount of new debt.

At some point the borrowing and spending has to end, or else legislators are going to be forced to raise taxes to continue meeting the bond payments on all the debt they so eagerly incurred.

Thats a fact senators and representatives of both parties would just as soon the voters not know about in this important legislative election year.

The 2006-2008 budget passed and sent to Fletcher last week contains $2.38 billion in new bonded debt. Thats a record amount. The previous record was set in the 2004-2006 budget passed by the General Assembly only last year. In barely 12 months, the House and Senate have added about $4 billion to the states overall debt. Annual interest on that total debt is close to $900 million a year and again every year until the debt is repaid.

(Coincidentally, that $900 million a year is nearly the amount of new money experts told legislators six years ago was needed to fully fund elementary and secondary education programs in Kentucky.)

So what are the taxpayers getting for all this money borrowed in their name and based on their collective good credit in the nations bond markets?

On every university and college campus in every region of the state will be gleaming new buildings, even as non-faculty employees of the University of Kentucky threaten to unionize because their pay raises are less than those approved for faculty.

Louisville gets $75 million toward its new arena and $185 million as the first of many installments on two new Ohio River bridges. Lexington gets more than $90 million for a hotel and Kentucky Horse Park improvements in preparation of an international equestrian event there.

There also are literally hundreds of smaller projects in the budget that include hiking trails, local ball fields, water and sewer construction the list is nearly endless.

And solid arguments can be made in favor of just about every one of those projects, except that paying for them over the next 20 years means their ultimate cost will be about twice when interest is paid on the debt, and that money will not be available again until the bonds are retired.

It also likely means that in two years, when the next budget is prepared, there may not be much in the way of new revenue to pay for still more university buildings, new hiking trails or desirable projects like the equestrian event that become available by 2008.

This whole business of loading down a state budget with projects in legislators districts in relatively new to Kentucky. A decade ago when the national and state economies were booming, new tax revenues flowed into the Kentucky Treasury in such huge numbers that legislators were able to go on a project spree, but on a pay-as-you-go basis. Golf courses, local history museums, parks and just about anything in the legislative imagination got funded.

All that cash came to an end after 2000, and in fact a succession of state budgets had to be slashed substantially to make them balance.

The legislative addiction to projects, however, was so strong that even as spending on education was being cut and university tuition climbed annually in double-digit numbers borrowing to pay for projects rose from one budget to another.

And now weve set a new debt record.

All the while the state employees retirement system is hundreds of millions of dollars short of what actuaries say it needs to pay future benefits.

Ah, but there will be new hiking trails and ballparks to play in.

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