FRANKFORT — Campaign-style bickering by Senate President David Williams and Gov. Steve Beshear overshadowed the start of a special legislative session Monday aimed at fixing the state's Medicaid budget.
The Democratic governor made stops at four regional airports in an effort to gain public support for his Medicaid plan while the Republican Senate leader dared Beshear to debate the issue on statewide television.
"I am challenging the governor to return to Frankfort and face me head-to-head in a statewide televised debate at Kentucky Educational Television's earliest possible convenience," Williams, R-Burkesville, said in a statement.
Beshear responded in a statement that "there will be plenty of time for political debates in the fall governor's race once Sen. Williams has done his job and assuming he survives the Republican primary."
At Beshear's airport stops, which will continue Tuesday, he urged voters to call their Republican state senators if they want to avoid more than $38 million in cuts to K-12 education. He warned that hospitals and doctors offices could face a 35 percent cut to Medicaid reimbursements if the legislature does not come to an agreement on the budget by April 1.
Beshear, speaking at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, said voters should be outraged that the legislature had to return to Frankfort on Monday when it had a 30-day session to fix the budget and failed to do it.
When Williams and the Republican-led Senate decided to adjourn last week without a budget agreement, "they quit on the people of the commonwealth," he said.
Senate Republicans waited until the third to last day of the legislative session to unveil their budget proposal, which included across-the-board cuts to state government. Beshear's plan to balance Medicaid was unveiled in November, he said.
Williams responded to news of Beshear's tour of the state by saying Beshear was wasting taxpayer money. Later, the Kentucky Republican Party released a statement demanding that Beshear's re-election campaign reimburse the money.
"He's flying around the state trying to get people with pitch forks and torches to come to the Capitol," Williams said.
Beshear confirmed that he was using a state airplane and said the trips were not campaign-related. Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, said the two-day trip would cost about $8,200.
"However, because of Sen. Williams' refusal to act during the regular session on these issues, he is currently costing the taxpayers $63,500 a day every day that the legislature is in special session," Richardson said.
House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said Beshear has the right to inform voters of what could happen if the legislature does not fix the Medicaid budget.
"He's not the first governor that has done that," Adkins said. "I think that is showing leadership."
Williams contended that the Senate saved taxpayers about $800,000 by ending the 2011 General Assembly last week instead of letting it run to March 21, as the House had planned.
House leaders said they would begin committee hearings Tuesday on the Beshear-backed budget bill — the same proposal the House passed during the regular session — and a bill to increase the drop-out age from 16 to 18.
Beshear is advocating transferring about $166 million from next year's Medicaid budget to this year's to plug a shortfall. He said the money can be recouped next year through efficiencies in privately run managed care programs within Medicaid.
Republican Senators say Beshear cannot generate enough savings in the $6.5 billion health care program for the poor and disabled in the second year of the budget. If Beshear can't generate the savings, much larger spending cuts would be necessary next fiscal year, they warn.
The Republicans passed a budget earlier this month that included across-the-board cuts to state government. Education would be spared in the current fiscal year but would be cut in the second year.
Beshear called the Republican proposal to cut education and other key parts of government "unconscionable" and "totally unnecessary."
If an agreement between House Democrats and Senate Republicans cannot be reached by April 1, Beshear said he will have to cut payments to Medicaid providers by 35 percent to balance this year's Medicaid budget.
Beshear provided a breakdown of how those cuts would affect certain Republican senators districts. For example, in Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr's Lexington district, about $31.5 million in Medicaid money is spent in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
If an agreement isn't reached, the district's hospitals and nursing homes would lose $2.8 million in Medicaid money, according to Beshear's figures, which do not include Medicaid payments to pharmacies or doctors' offices.
Williams said Monday afternoon during a news conference in his Capitol Annex office that the Senate would introduce several pieces of legislation, including a bill to balance the Medicaid budget with cuts across state government.
The governor, who called the special session and set its agenda, said last week that he worded his call in a way that would prohibit the Senate from considering cuts to government programs other than Medicaid.
The Senate does not think Beshear has the power to prohibit the use of cuts to balance the Medicaid budget, Williams said.
The Senate also will file legislation, Williams said, to suspend legislators' pay during the special session and to require legislators to vote in future special sessions whether to accept pay.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said his caucus has sponsored legislation previously that would have eliminated pay for legislators during the special session. Neither House Democrats nor Senate Republicans expressed interest in the bill, Hoover said.
"The time to do that is to pass it during the regular session so everybody knows that if we don't get the job done, we don't get paid if we come back," Hoover said.
Williams met with House Republicans for about 30 minutes to go over the Senate's budget plan. House Republicans have said they would not support cuts to education.
Hoover said after the meeting that "no one has expressed to me any change in their position."