Process slow, but at least budget is done

Kentucky has one of the shortest legislative sessions in the country.

Legislators are in session for 30 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years.

With that in mind, you would think our legislators would work extra hard to do the work that their constituents elected them to do.

But unfortunately, too often we see a General Assembly in Frankfort — both in the Democratic-controlled House and in the Republican-controlled Senate — that bickers, postures, points fingers and plays political games instead of doing the people’s work.

It’s quite a shame, because it is the people of this state who suffer when important legislation isn’t passed, or when budgets aren’t passed as required under our state’s Constitution in even-numbered years.

Until Thursday, Kentucky residents were in a very vulnerable position because legislators had not passed a two-year budget. Fortunately, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together and passed a two-year budget. We only wish it wasn’t necessary to wait until the 11th hour.

The budget isn’t perfect, but at least some middle ground was found between the House and Senate.

It appears that both sides agreed to major concessions in the budget. House Democrats agreed to cut spending on public colleges and universities by 4.5 percent over the next two years. They also agreed that colleges and universities will have to compete for a certain portion of their state funding beginning in 2017 under a new system that rewards institutions that do things such as produce more graduates.

Western Kentucky University did get some good news out of this budget. The budget includes equity funding of about $2.5 million for WKU, which is an effort to get funding levels for WKU on par with what is given to other state schools. It also includes $750,000 a year funding for the Kentucky Mesonet, a series of weather stations across the state operated by WKU.

No K-12 education programs were cut. Constitutional offices would be cut by 4.5 percent. The cuts would not affect the duties of each office as set forth in the state Constitution. The Senate and House agreed to put in the $34 million requested by the Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton

Minton told lawmakers the $34 million would stave off cuts to drug courts and court staffing that could leave the system gridlocked.

This is wonderful news for the state court system, and Minton should be commended for working tirelessly during this session to stave off these cuts.

Senate Republicans agreed to spend $25 million over the next two years on a program that promises to give free community college tuition to all Kentucky high school graduates. The proposed budget does not include money to hire more public defenders and social workers.

A major breakthrough in the budget negotiations was both sides agreeing to put more than $1 billion toward the state’s public pension debt that is estimated at more than $30 billion, placing Kentucky among the worst-funded pension programs in the country. It also includes a separate “permanent fund” of money that can only be spent on the pension system upon the completion of a state audit.

For decades, lawmakers have simply kicked the can down the road when it came to paying down our state’s unfunded public pension liability. So, it is nice to see that the two chambers came together and committed this money to finally begin paying down this enormous debt. It’s worth noting this is the highest level the state’s public pension debt has ever been funded.

Although it took legislators the whole session — aided by added deadline pressure issued by Gov. Matt Bevin — to pass this budget, we applaud them for accomplishing this vital task.

We believe a lot of the credit goes to Bevin, who took the right approach Tuesday by telling lawmakers that he would not call a special session that would allow lawmakers to come back on the taxpayers’ dime to do the work they should have done in the regular session.

It appears that Bevin’s words lit a fire under lawmakers to get a budget passed. Bevin can still line-item veto parts of this budget, which lawmakers can’t override at this point because they waited until the last day to pass a deal. The full state legislature was required to approve the budget by midnight Friday.

The people of our state are the winners here. Although they had to watch in dismay during the entire session over the finger pointing and posturing, they ultimately got an acceptable budget during the regular session.

That’s something the citizens of this state should be proud of.

Bowling Green Daily News

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