After much debate, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed its budget to fund state government for the next two years this week.
The $20.3 billion spending plan is nearly identical to one proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear, and it largely preserves funding for K through 12 education, which has been a stated priority of the governor.
The sparring over the plan on the House floor could be a sign of things to come in November, when many lawmakers are up for re-election. In a sprawling five-hour debate, House members argued over how best to spend the money of Kentucky taxpayers.
“Mr. Speaker, this is an important budget,” said Democratic House budget chair Rick Rand. “And I think anyone who votes yes on this budget today can feel good about that vote.”
He sponsored a last-minute substitute to the budget that counteracted a slew of Republican amendments, including one from GOP Rep. Joe Fischer that would repeal the state’s Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and defund Kentucky’s health insurance exchange, Kynect.
“You neglected to talk about the Affordable Care Act exchange, or the expansion of Medicaid,” Fischer said. “Is that in this floor amendment?”
Rand acknowledged that there were Medicaid funds in the bill, but then went a step further.
“We know what this is about, Mr. Speaker. It’s to hold up this budget bill,” Rand said. “It’s to have us debate on issues that really have no effect on what we’re doing here today, Mr. Speaker.
“It’s Washington-style politics that’s brought right here to Kentucky that we don’t deserve, Mr. Speaker. I think it’s designed to stop the budget process.”
Although Fischer’s amendment was defeated, it sparked a broader conversation about the federal health care law, and essentially framed the debate as such: A vote for the budget bill is a vote for Obamacare.
House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover told his colleagues as much, saying the legislature never had the chance to discuss the Affordable Care Act because it was implemented by the governor.
“We don’t agree with Obamacare, and we want to know what House Democrats think about it,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a retired nurse, was more than happy to offer her thoughts.
“Is it perfect? No. But we have expanded Medicaid in this state to people that have never had an opportunity to get to the physician, or to get to a nurse practitioner, or to get their medication,” she said.
Another defeated Republican amendment was Rep. Stan Lee’s provision to force the state Attorney General’s office to pay for an appeal of a federal ruling overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, which Attorney General Jack Conway has declined to take part in.
“No matter how you feel or what your position is on the marriage amendment, I think we all should agree that the Attorney General has a duty to defend all of the laws, including the constitution of the Commonwealth,” Lee said.
In matters concerning the budget itself, Rep. Jim Wayne took issue with a provision that would charge students in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System an $8 per credit fee to pay for campus construction projects. He says it unfairly taxes students, and is a symptom of a broken tax code.
“Until we face the reality that we have to have an adequate, fair and flexible tax system that’s gonna pump money into our state, increase the investment that we as a government make in our people, we will continue this downward spiral,” Wayne said.
When the smoke finally cleared, the measure passed along largely partisan lines by a 53-46 vote, with a few Democrats voting against it, and one member not voting due to an absence.
As the chamber began emptying out after the vote, House Speaker Greg Stumbo addressed the play by Republicans to make the budget process a referendum on Democratic policy.
“The budget bill is too important to Kentucky to play partisan politics with, and you saw them try to play partisan politics with it today,” Stumbo said. “And I hope that their brethren, that the Senate will not act that way.”
November is much closer than it seems.