When it comes to determining the state’s priorities, no bill speaks louder than the budget. Just as families decide what is important by the way they spend their money, government leaders do the same when it comes to our tax dollars.
With that in mind, the budget proposal that Governor Andy Beshear presented the General Assembly late last week gives us the blueprint we need to successfully navigate what is hopefully the final months of the COVID-19 pandemic and to be stronger when better days do arrive.
Last March, near the end of the 2020 legislative session, there was so much economic uncertainty that legislators took a cautious approach and enacted a conservative one-year state spending plan rather than the traditional two-year budget. We correctly decided that we needed more time and data before tackling that second fiscal year.
The good news is that this time and data have been far kinder than we would have ever thought.
In the spring and even well into the summer, there were worries that state revenues would drop by hundreds of millions of dollars. Instead, we ended last fiscal year with a slight surplus; the current fiscal year is well ahead of projections; and next fiscal year – which starts July 1— is forecast to have moderate growth.
Thanks to the federal stimulus package approved in the pandemic’s early days and a better than expected economy, state officials said December’s revenues were the second highest on record, certainly a positive sign. And this was before a second round of federal stimulus dollars was signed into law two days after Christmas, a move that will provide Kentuckians and state government $5 billion more in the weeks ahead.
Against that positive backdrop, Governor Beshear has laid out a sound budget that invests more in our small businesses, helps families still struggling with unemployment, boosts our schools and extends needed healthcare programs.
He would like to see the state, for example, provide small businesses $220 million to help them get back on their feet and have another $252 million go toward paying down the federal loan borrowed to pay unemployment benefits. Nearly $50 million more would go directly to those who have been unemployed.
Governor Beshear is proposing $1,000 raises for teachers and other school employees and more money for textbooks, preschool programs and higher education. State workers would get a 1 percent raise, too, and our public retirement systems would once again receive the full payments they deserve.
He also would like to hire dozens of new social workers to handle a still too-high caseload and to give our public health departments more money to help with their retirement costs and to support the frontline role they have played during the pandemic.
There would be $50 million as well to extend and improve broadband options for businesses and families. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that faster Internet has become a critical utility, and we need to do all we can to make it more affordable and accessible in underserved areas.
Like in the current budget, coal counties would get to keep nearly all of their severance taxes under the governor’s plan, something they desperately need. These revenues have traditionally been split with the state, but their steep decline over the past eight years has devastated these regions, as we know all too well. This change would help us better face that challenge.
Now that Gov. Beshear has provided his budget, the House and Senate are now deciding what changes they think should ultimately become law. This is normally done in a legislative session’s final days, but with COVID-19 numbers quickly rising, it is being fast-tracked.
The House and Senate voted on a “shell” budget this week, and other leaders and I will write the actual document in the nearly three-week recess that begins this week. The goal is to have a final version ready for a House and Senate vote early next month, when the legislature returns to the Capitol. It will then be up to the governor to decide what, if anything, to veto.
While that process is just getting underway, the General Assembly rushed a number of bills through the House and Senate this past week that, collectively, represent a power grab from the Executive and Judicial branches. That includes making it much tougher for us to do what is necessary to continue making Kentucky’s COVID numbers better than what we’re seeing in many other states.
I will focus on those more next week. For now, please don’t hesitate to reach out with your views or concerns. My email is Angie.Hatton@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line for all legislators – which is staffed each weekday – is 1-800-372-7181. I’m on social media as well.
You can also can read the text of bills and check on votes by visiting the General Assembly’s website at legislature. ky.gov, and KET has most of our meetings available on its website.
I hope to hear from you soon.