Frankfort, KY – With less than three weeks remaining in the 2010 Kentucky General Assembly, a new biennial state budget awaits Senate consideration after clearing the House Wednesday. Kentucky Public Radio's Tony McVeigh watched the House debate.
The budget plan offered by Gov. Steve Beshear on January 19th, was based on almost $800 million in revenue from casino gambling. But it went nowhere. Legislative leaders said there wasn't enough support for expanded gambling this session. So, for the next six weeks, House leaders huddled behind closed doors, crafting their own budget from the ground up.
"It took us many days and weeks just to look and find and work and consider every option that we could do to tighten our belts here in state government," said Rep. Rick Rand. "And we have done that. And I think that's an overriding theme that we can all take home."
The $17.5 billion budget unveiled this week by House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Rick Rand calls for shared sacrifice. It includes no pay raises, eliminates two classroom days, trims university budgets, reduces personal service contracts and non-merit employees, and requires businesses to delay some tax write-offs. But it also includes $2.2 billion in bonded highway, bridge and school projects. During the three-and-a-half hour House debate over the bill, Republicans, like Rep. Brad Montell of Shelbyville, pounced on the unprecedented levels of debt.
"This is a budget that started with so much promise," said Montell, "but, unfortunately, wound up looking much like other recent budgets - too much spending, too much taxing and too much borrowing."
Also piling on was Republican Rep. Stan Lee of Lexington, who said government borrowing and spending in Frankfort reminds him of a song by the band Dire Straits, called "Money for Nothing."
"Ladies and gentlemen, over the last three budget cycles we have borrowed an average $1.9 to $2.0 billion, for $6 billion in debt," said Lee. "You know, as a great American once said, the fastest way out of hole is to stop digging and yet, here we go again digging another $2.2 billion in that hole."
But Rep. Rand is making no apologies. He says bond rates and construction costs are low and Kentuckians desperately need jobs.
"This budget is gonna embark on a construction program for schools, roads, bridges and water and sewer lines - infrastructure in this state - and we're gonna put people back to work," said Rand. "We're gonna create jobs!"
As House Speaker Greg Stumbo opened the roll call machine, the green and red lights quickly reflected a strict party-line vote, with two exceptions. One Democrat, Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville, voted no.
"If this bill passes," said Wayne, "we will have over $10 billion total debt in the year 2012."
One Republican, Rep. Jim Stewart of Flat Lick, who sits beside budget chairman Rand, voted yes.
"And I can't help it because the A&R chairman put something in the budget for me!" joked Stewart.
(Speaker Stumbo announces the 65-33 vote)
Before adjourning, the House also approved the new Judicial and Legislative branch budgets, and sent them, along with the Executive budget, to the Republican-controlled Senate. Eventually, the budget will wind up in a conference committee, where House and Senate differences will be ironed out. But lawmakers must work quickly because only 15 days remain in the 2010 session.