For a dozen years now, ever since the start of the Great Recession, state government has had little choice but to find ways to do more with less.
This year, however, it appears we have turned a corner. Both the governor and now the House have come up with budget proposals that, for the first time since 2006-08, don’t include any across-the-board cuts. In fact, there are several areas where the recommendations include slight increases.
Although there are parts of the House spending plan that I oppose, I did vote for it last Friday because there are still many positive things within it.
Both budget plans, for example, would return virtually all coal severance tax revenues to the coal counties, something our region needs and which I certainly support. The House and Governor Beshear take different approaches when it comes to returning this money, but if the Senate agrees in concept, a compromise here should be within easy reach.
The same goes for helping our understaffed social workers. Governor Beshear would like to hire 350 new ones, to reduce caseloads that are much too high on average, but the House budget recommends hiring 100 new ones while giving this group of workers more money to reduce turnover.
A third area where different approaches are taken is teacher pay. Governor Beshear asked for a $2,000 raise for each educator – mirroring similar requests by governors in states like Tennessee and Florida – but the House budget calls for one percent raises for every school employee. My hope is that we can boost the pay of all school employees while doing more to keep teachers on par with their counterparts across the country.
In other education matters within the two budget plans, there is general agreement about raising the per-pupil amount for our elementary, middle, and high school students; and there is also more money for new school buses, textbooks, and added school safety measures.
Compared to past budgets, there is less one-time money spent on recurring costs in both budgets, and both set aside more for our “Rainy Day” fund so we’re able to weather potential economic downturns from such things as the coronavirus, which has gained a foothold in the Lexington and Louisville regions but not here in eastern Kentucky.
There are some areas where I hope the final budget makes improvements over the House version. I believe we need to increase the training stipend for eligible law enforcement and firefighters, for example, and we also need to increase the number of Medicaid-waiver slots in those programs where the waiting lists run into the thousands.
All of this work will be done by the legislative session’s final day in mid-April, and like all budgets, this one will become effective on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
Outside of the budget, the House also voted on two other significant bills last week that deal with voting and driving.
The former was Senate Bill 2, which would essentially mandate photo IDs to vote and provide free ones to those who don’t have them. Current law already requires voters to show some form of ID, so the worry is that this would be another barrier that could keep more Kentuckians from voting.
At the very least, it could cost the state millions of dollars for something when there has not been a single example of in-person voting fraud in Kentucky this century. I believe that money should go toward strengthening voting security and by expanding voting opportunities.
I also worry about the impact of legislation that will change the way all of us get our driver’s licenses. For decades now, our circuit court clerks have issued them, but over the next couple of years, that responsibility will move to the Transportation Cabinet.
That cabinet is planning to have as few as 12 regional centers to issue both REAL IDs, which Congress authorized back in 2005 to strengthen this form of identification, and traditional driver’s licenses for all 120 counties.
My hope is that we can find a way to issue both of these licenses closer to home so that my constituents don’t have to go to the time and expense of driving to a regional center. In the meantime, it is important to note that the traditional driver’s license will no longer be accepted this fall if you plan to fly commercially in the United States or enter a federal facility. You will need a REAL ID or other federal document like a passport in those cases.