Kentucky lawmakers will end this year’s legislative session today (Wednesday), 12 days earlier than scheduled, in a move by Senate Republicans to force House Democrats to swiftly reach a compromise on competing proposals to balance the state’s Medicaid budget.
Senate leaders said ending early will save Kentucky taxpayers some $800,000 that would have otherwise been used for lawmakers’ wages and expenses. In fact, Tuesday may have been last day for lawmakers in the House, which isn’t scheduled to meet today.
The House and Senate have been in discussions for three days to try to reach an accord on Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s proposal to balance the Medicaid budget by using $166.5 million from next year’s appropriation this year. Senate Republicans want across-the-board cuts to all government programs to fill the gap.
House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins likened the Senate action to playground antics.
“The people’s business is not finished,” Adkins said in an emotionally charged floor speech. “When you don’t get your way, you don’t pick up your ball and go home. You stay and you battle and you get it done.”
Beshear called on the GOP to accept his proposal, calling it a simple fix that shouldn’t be controversial. Republican lawmakers responded with the announcement that they’re going home.
“I don’t consider it the nuclear option,” said Senate Republican Leader Robert Stivers II. “It is a reality that is apparent the House believes that there is no necessity of in any way questioning the governor’s plan.”
Even though the House won’t officially be gaveled into session on Wednesday, members could still talk about the Medicaid proposals and come to a conclusion that the Senate could approve.
The GOP-controlled Senate has steadfastly rejected Beshear’s proposal over the negotiations, calling instead for budget cuts to all government programs.
“We’re don’t need to be cutting our school kids,” Beshear said. “ We don’t need to be cutting our social workers or our police or our fire or our seniors or our veterans or anybody else. It’s not necessary.”
Talks broke down among House and Senate negotiators Tuesday evening, and no more are scheduled, leaving Beshear to face the possibility of cutting reimbursements to medical providers by some 30 percent, thereby reducing services to some of the more than 800,000 poor, disabled and elderly Kentuckians who receive Medicaid benefits.
Discussions had deteriorated in the morning into acrimonious debate as the Senate pressed for the across- the- board budget cuts. The Senate backed away from its original proposal for 2.26 percent cuts, modifying that to 1.58 percent.
Beshear told reporters in his Capitol office that the cuts aren’t necessary, especially considering more than $1 billion subtracted from the state budget over the past three years. But by failing to reach an agreement, Beshear warned that lawmakers could force the closure of some rural hospitals dependent on Medicaid reimbursements.
“ These places would not be able to provide the services that Kentuckians need to stay alive and stay healthy,” Beshear said, blaming Republican Senate President David Williams for causing a crisis in the Medicaid program by rejecting his proposed fix.
“It’s ridiculous that we’re having to even debate the approach here, because it’s such a simple approach,” Beshear said.
The breakdown in talks came just hours after lawmakers learned that a recovering economy may have made their jobs a bit easier.
State Budget Director Mary Lassiter released the February revenue report showing tax receipts up 5.5 percent for the fiscal year, slightly ahead of the predicted 4.2 percent.
Total revenues for the month were $553 million, some $ 28 million more than in February 2010. Lassiter said the “solid growth” boosts her confidence that revenues for the year will likely exceed budgeted levels. Some of the extra money could be used to help plug the $166.5 million gap.
“We can argue. They can argue,” Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Tuesday. “The question is whether or not you want to find some middle ground. We want to find middle ground.”
Republican Senate President David Williams said lawmakers can return in special session later in the year if an accord isn’t reached on Wednesday. But he stressed that he and other Senate negotiators will be pressing for an agreement. One stipulation of any agreement, Williams said, would have to be a promise by Beshear that he wouldn’t veto any portion of it.
The upcoming governor’s race has complicated negotiations. Beshear and Williams, who developed the plan for cuts, could face each other in this fall’s gubernatorial election. Beshear is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Williams is one of three Republicans seeking the GOP nomination.
Beshear’s proposal would not only shift funding from next fiscal year’s budget to close this year’s Medicaid budget gap, but would also balance next year’s budget with some $425 million in cost savings in the Medicaid program by entering into private contracts with managed-care organizations.