If you’re like me, the last month has felt more like a year, and phrases we had never heard of a few weeks ago — like “social distancing” and “healthy at home” — are now ones we’ll never forget.
As difficult as this time has been, I am proud of the way our community and region have pulled together to make sure all of us are safe and cared for.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that we’re not alone in this effort and that Kentucky is setting a great example when it comes to limiting the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, a survey by U.S. News & World Report found that more than 80 percent of Kentuckians rate our response as good or excellent, the highest percentage among all 50 states. The goal is to keep this up and maintain this positive trend.
At the Capitol this past week, the General Assembly did its part by taking unprecedented steps before voting on the state budget and related bills. Instead of sitting just a foot or so from each other like we normally do, we only had legislative leaders like me and a few others in the chambers while our colleagues texted us their votes from their Capitol offices or even their cars.
That may have added an extra hurdle to our work, but it enabled us to get the budget to Governor Andy Beshear on time for his review. Between now and April 13, when other legislators and I return to the Capitol to wrap up the session, he will decide whether to sign these bills into law, let them become law without his signature or issue vetoes. It’s worth noting that the budget is the only bill where he can reject some provisions while allowing the rest.
Essentially, the spending plan the General Assembly sent him is a continuation of the one now running state government, which means there is no extra money for our classrooms, no raises for state government and school employees and no hiring of additional social workers to help reduce average caseloads.
In normal times, the budget we pass covers two years, but this one will just run from July to the end of June 2021. Next winter, we will reassess with more information in hand and then budget the following fiscal year accordingly.
Although I wish we could have done more, I voted for this budget because I believe we have little choice but to navigate as best as we can with so much economic uncertainty. Like any budget, there are areas that I agree with, and some that I don’t.
On the positive side, this budget will be the first time the state returns all coal-severance tax dollars to the coal-producing counties. This fulfills a goal many of us have long had, and there is no doubt that this is needed.
There is also money to implement new school-safety measures that were initially called for during the 2019 legislative session.
The budget also gives another one-year freeze in public retirement contributions to our quasi-governmental agencies like health departments, which is something they have really needed because they were facing a spike in payments they couldn’t afford this summer without some legislative action. Our cities and counties will also have a one-year freeze in their public-pension payments.
Regrettably, the budget singles out the governor’s office for cuts, and it will make it more difficult to fully fund Medicaid. Some other new rules are overly restrictive, as well.
The best news for us looking ahead is the federal stimulus package that Congress just enacted. Most of us have heard about the $1,200 checks that will be sent out soon — that’s about $4 billion in Kentuckians’ pockets alone — and there will be $600 extra each week for those on unemployment.
The state will get about $1.5 billion to fill in gaps, and there will be hundreds of millions of dollars more in federal funding for our schools and to help our hospitals and small businesses.
It will take time to see how this stimulus plan and the economic fall-out from the coronavirus will affect us here at home and at the state level. This budget, at the very least, will give us some breathing room.
As we wait to see what happens, I want to end by saying once again how proud I am of what we have done to help each other, and I have no doubt that we will continue this for as long as it takes, because lives really are at stake. We have faced bigger challenges and become stronger as a result, and I’m confi- dent that will happen again.
Although the session is nearly over, it is never too late to let me know your concerns or if you have any questions.
The legislative toll-free phone line to leave a message is 1-800-372-7181, while you can always email me at Angie.Hatton@lrc.ky.gov.
To keep up with the latest news on the coronavirus, you can also visit kycovid19.ky.gov, or call its hotline at (800) 722-5725.