Ky. budget cuts education, funds sports teams

Lawmakers last week bemoaned funding cuts for education and other areas of state government, but at the same time authorized hundreds of millions of dollars worth of projects for things such as ballparks, football equipment and museums back home.

After more than a week of budget negotiations, legislators said they had settled on an approximately $19 billion two-year “bare bones” budget that slashed funding for public universities by 3 percent and cut funding for human services. It was also free of special projects.

But, in an election year budget session, some legislators threatened to vote against the project-free budget, putting state government’s spending plan in jeopardy. Ultimately, House and Senate lawmakers brokered a deal that authorized millions of dollars worth of projects across the state.

“Quite frankly they can’t pass a budget through the House without those,” Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said of the special projects. “We have shown that we can pass a budget through the Senate without those, but traditionally those House members go out and make those commitments.”

Kentucky lawmakers had returned to the Capitol in January, faced with the daunting task of crafting a state spending blueprint with revenue projected to decline by $900 million over the next two years. Gov. Steve Beshear had ordered 3 percent cuts just to manage an estimated $434 million shortfall in the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

The newly elected governor proposed the General Assembly raise revenue and increase the state’s tax on cigarettes by 70 cents per pack. Beshear also urged legislators to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize casino gambling – a plan he says could eventually raise $500 million per year in extra revenue.

Lawmakers, however, decided not to raise taxes.

Instead, the legislature agreed to raise more than $300 million in revenue by capitalizing on an expected flood of retiring state employees, capturing more revenue from the Kentucky Lottery and restructuring some state debt.

Nevertheless, House Appropriations and Revenue Committee chairman Harry Moberly voted against the budget proposal calling it, “One of the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Still, the legislators agreed to authorize additional projects as part of a separate spending bill when they return to the Capitol on April 14. During the break between last Thursday and their return, lawmakers are negotiating exactly which projects will get funded.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said talks on those projects will begin sometime early this week and include $50 million for water and sewer projects in coal counties and $100 million in non-coal counties.

Legislators also agreed to authorize $230 million in road projects and about $100 million in coal-severance projects over the next two years. The plan keeps proposed Louisville bridges on track through federal bonds and frees up money for other road construction in the state.

Legislators agreed to appropriate coal severance revenues, which come from a mining tax, to pay for hundreds of projects in the state’s coal counties. In some cases, the money will be used for treating drug addicts, renovating jails and buying police cars. In others, it will be used for storm warning systems, building factories, or expanding recreational opportunities.

There’s also an appropriation of $275,000 for an ATV training facility and trailheads in Knott County, $275,000 for operating and maintaining the East Kentucky Expo Center in Pikeville and $250,000 for Elkwood Golf Course, club house, parking and storage in Sturgis. Harlan county is getting $249,000 for a little league batting cage and building, while Bell County’s getting $5,000 for football equipment for youngsters.

The list goes on.

Williams said such projects won’t cost the state money from its general fund and would eventually generate more revenue through the state’s income, sales and gasoline taxes. Funding for some things such as fire trucks can also be a worthy investment that helps keep local insurance rates down, Williams said.

But Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, said appropriating that type of money sends a “very bad message” to voters at a time when the state as a whole is facing tough times. With enough votes, legislators could have decided to spend that money elsewhere, Burch said.

“It shows you that materialism is taking too big a hold on this country,” Burch said. “Why do we have to have projects now?”

But Rep. Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said that idea is “100 percent wrong.” Revenue from the mined coal comes “off the backs of the coal miners” and should be returned to their areas, Nelson said. He also noted that a portion of the revenue from that tax goes into the state’s general fund, which pays for things such as education and health care.

“When they needed $10 million last year for Ford (Motor Co., which has plants in Louisville), all the mountain legislators voted for them. We need to support each other and coal severance is a part of the law,” Nelson said. “We don’t have a tax base and those projects, I think help improve the community. Some of them on there might not be what everybody likes, but what is?”