FRANKFORT — When lawmakers failed to produce a state budget Thursday, the political posturing began as House and Senate leaders sought to position themselves for this year's elections and possibly next year's race for governor.
After nearly three weeks of negotiations over the state's budget, both sides agreed on one thing — politics was at the root of their disagreement.
Several disappointed members in the Democratic-controlled House took the floor in the final hours of this year's legislative session, claiming that the Republican-led Senate never really wanted a budget — just a political message for voters.
Republican senators countered that in a tough economy they simply could not accept what they called irresponsible House budget plans, which initially called for $1 billion in debt for construction projects purportedly to produce jobs. Eventually the House proposed a "continuation budget" that analysts said would prove costly in future years.
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Republicans say their supporters want them to be fiscally conservative in tough economic times.
But Democrats said they could not support a budget that makes significant cuts to the primary funding formula for elementary and secondary education or cripples the state's social services, already hampered by previous rounds of cuts.
At times, Thursday's floor speeches sounded more like stump speeches than policy debates. All 100 House members and 19 in the state Senate are up for re-election this year. Some face voters May 18, and many of those voters will likely be upset that Kentucky has no budget yet.
There is also speculation that the chiefs of the two chambers — Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg — may run for governor next year.
Both men say they are content in their current jobs leading their respective chambers. Williams, though, sounded like a candidate late Thursday when he issued a statement comparing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Stumbo to President Barack Obama and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, respectively.
Stumbo and House Democrats also blamed politics with the breakdown between the two chambers.
"There's great uncertainty in the Republican Party because of the so-called Tea Party movement," Stumbo said. "The decision has been made at high levels in the Republican Party that there has to be actions taken to bring these Tea Party people back into the base."
Stumbo stressed that his thoughts were speculation on his part, "because, believe me, they don't consult with me what their message is going to be.
"But I think that message is going to be, come on back to our party. We are strong conservatives like you. We're not going to allow government to grow."
Williams countered that the House's stance on education and construction projects was about protecting the Democratic base, which includes the Kentucky Education Association and labor unions.
Still, Williams remained optimistic that lawmakers can reach an agreement in a special session next month, but outlined his rules of engagement.
Williams said Friday that he would like to see a two-year budget. He also said it should not increase business taxes, use much one-time money or make a huge increase in state debt.
Stumbo's office had no comment about Williams' parameters for a budget.
Williams also said he would like to see Beshear include on the call for a special session creation of charter schools to improve Kentucky's chances of obtaining more federal funds. Charter schools are granted special permits, or charters, that allow them to operate outside usual state regulations.
Beshear spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said the governor has not yet decided what, if anything, else to put on the session call other than the budget.
Only the governor can call a special session and set its agenda. The legislature determines how long it will last, but Beshear said he hopes it will run only five days at a cost of $64,000 a day to taxpayers.
The Democratic governor, in a letter to House and Senate leaders on Friday, said he expects legislators to reach an accord in May.
If an agreement cannot be reached, Beshear said, his administration will need at least a month to shut down parts of government.
A 2005 Supreme Court ruling said that only essential parts of government outlined in the state Constitution could be funded if the legislature does not approve a budget.
"I call on you to work together to resolve the outstanding issues as quickly as possible and to contact me with your suggestions for a date in April or May for the special session," Beshear said.