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State spending plan takes shape

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From the House

By Rep. David Floyd

FRANKFORT - As this holiday-shortened week wore on, legislative leaders began hinting at the outline and shape of a spending plan that would indeed, as speculated, count on additional federal stimulus dollars, along with certain targeted cuts, to spare elementary and secondary education of essential-funding reductions and bring manageable order to a state budget facing a billion-dollar shortfall or worse.

By week’s end, the outline was being filled in: Two-percent cuts to public universities, two instruction days in public schools eliminated (with latitude for districts to use their own money to restore them), and employee health benefits revised, among other steps, to balance a state budget badly in the red.

This as the legislative session reached its midpoint, half finished in days but with most of its heavy lifting still ahead.

The plan would figuratively ‘borrow’ from the state Medicaid program to

cover much of the revenue gap in the budget’s first year. This assumes a six-month extension of federal stimulus dollars help to help meet states’ Medicaid costs, in the form of increased reimbursement rates.

Leaders in both chambers have said that’s a reasonable and likely assumption, given the signals they’ve gotten from Washington.

That, plus savings realized through cutting non-merit political positions in the executive branch and elsewhere, reducing payroll costs across all three branches of state government, reconfiguring parts of the state-employee health plan to offer less costly coverage options, and reducing personal-service contract costs, would help balance the budget the first year of the biennium.

The proposal includes no raises for teachers or state employees.

Budget planners are still looking at how to cover a fairly substantial gap in the budget’s second year, but seem confident it can be done with further efficiencies.

There are no tax increases in the House proposal And it’s hoped Medicaid funding and base funding for public schools won’t face cuts in the budget now envisioned, and that state payroll savings can be accomplished through employee attrition rather than layoffs.

The legislative push to write a budget from scratch came after Gov. Steve Beshear proposed - and leaders of both chambers rejected out of hand - a two-year budget counting on $780 million in envisioned tax revenues from

allowing slot machines at state racetracks.

None of this is set in stone. Leaders called the budget proposal as it stands ‘just a blueprint,’ with new ideas welcome, and said refinement is certain as the budget bill moves through the legislative process, beginning probably next week .

when the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee can take it up in bill form.

It is still hoped the House can pass its version of the budget and send it on to the Senate by early next month.

Meanwhile, an omnibus domestic-violence bill moved on to the Senate this week when HB 189 passed the House 96-0 on Wednesday. The bill incorporates language from other House bills and amendments, and makes a number of changes to Kentucky’s domestic-violence laws, including beefed-up protections for adult dating partners in abusive relationships and expansion of the list of crimes - such as shelter trespass and injury caused by intentional strangulation - that could be prosecuted under state statutes.

The bill joins HB 1, known as Amanda’s Law, as part of a major push this session to crack down on the growing problem of domestic abuse in Kentucky. That bill, also now before the Senate, would allow courts to order ankle-bracelet GPS tracking of potential abusers in domestic violence cases.

The Senate this week passed a measure to make state elections more transparent in this age of big money injected into campaigns by groups with little public accountability or exposure. As it stands now, so-called 527 groups - political organizations that can receive unlimited contributions from each donor - are largely unregulated in Kentucky, in part because they’re a new force in politics. They can run limitless ads on a candidate or issue, and the public will have no idea who is paying for those ads until after the election has already been decided.

SB 25 would hold these groups to the same registration and reporting requirements as individual candidates if they spend more than $5,000 in any one race - whether for an office or on a ballot question. The groups would have to file reports on who gave them money 15 days before the election in addition to other requirements, so the public will know where both attacks ads and positive ads are coming from.