FRANKFORT — The impasse between the House and Senate over Kentucky's budget for the next two years could play a major role in this year's state elections as Democrats and Republicans battle over the size of government.
Political observers say the deadlock highlights a philosophical difference between the two sides that mirrors a national political landscape pitting cries for less government spending against calls for government intervention to improve lives.
The budget impasse arose when the Democratic-controlled House initially sought more than $1 billion in water, sewer and school construction projects. House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the plan amounted to a "jobs creation" program at a time when the state's unemployment rate is more than 10 percent.
The Republican-led Senate, concerned about the state's growing debt, balked and did not accept the projects. Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, used the rallying cry of "fiscal conservatives" to support the Senate's stance.
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The difference of opinion "certainly seems to parallel the national political debate over government spending versus smaller government," said Laurie Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville.
Joe Gershtenson, director of Eastern Kentucky University's Institute of Public Governance and Civic Engagement, said the impasse reminds him of the stink caused earlier this year when U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky temporarily blocked an extension of unemployment benefits, saying the government should not go into more debt.
"Bunning said we should pay for this," Gershtenson said. "The same type of idea is at play in the Kentucky legislature."
After weeks of negotiations, there was no word of any breakthrough Thursday to end the stalemate over the state's roughly $17 billion, two-year spending plan.
Legislators must pass a budget before midnight April 15, or Gov. Steve Beshear probably would have to call a special session, at a cost of about $60,000 a day, before the 2011 fiscal year begins July 1.
If no budget is adopted by July 1, non-essential government programs, such as state parks, might have to shut down.
Earlier this week, House Democrats said they were making some concessions to "meet in the middle" with Senate Republicans.
But the concessions have not led to any word that a compromise is in the works. If there is no budget this year, Williams maintains, voters in November will decide whether they favor fiscal conservatives or those who want to spend more.
Stumbo counters that that the state lost 100,000 jobs last year and that the construction projects could retain or create up to 25,000 jobs.
Rhodebeck and Gershtenson expect the debate to flow into this year's legislative campaigns. All 100 state House seats and 19 of the Senate's 38 seats are up for grabs.
So who would have the advantage at the polls?
"It's too early to say how this would turn out at the polls," Gershtenson said. "Neither side has a clear advantage here, which would be the case if one side was backing additional taxes. ... While Kentuckians, like most Americans, are cautious about bigger government, we're accustomed to seeing government involved in our lives."
Rhodebeck said she does not think public sentiment is as great against government spending as the media portray.
"Fiscal conservatism is getting a lot of attention in the media, but I think people are more focused on getting help in a very tough economy," she said. "If the economy improves, I think there will be less anger directed toward government."