FRANKFORT — The Kentucky House voted Thursday night to approve the state's $20.3 billion, two-year spending plan and forward it to the Senate, with 15 days remaining in the 60-workday legislative session.
The Democratic-led House spent several hours debating the executive branch budget bill, which comprises the bulk of the spending. Largely reflecting Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear's budget plan, it offers pay raises for state workers and school teachers and fully funds the required contributions to the state's ailing pension system. But it continues the past few years of sweeping cuts across state government, including public universities, with most agencies looking at a 2.5 percent or 5 percent reduction.
"There were significant challenges in this budget. First of which was, our revenue growth was modest," said House budget chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford. However, he added, "I believe that with this budget — a yes vote on this budget — you can go home and say we've done good things and we're changing people's lives."
The Republican-led Senate is expected to have its own ideas about state spending. The two chambers must reach a compromise and put a final version on Beshear's desk no later than April 15, when the legislature adjourns.
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House Democratic leaders maneuvered the budget bill past several Republican floor amendments by suddenly introducing a new, slightly revised version on the House floor to which none of the GOP amendments was technically relevant.
Republican lawmakers hoped to use the budget to debate the Affordable Care Act — since the budget funds Kentucky's outreach efforts — and Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway's recent decision to not join the state's appeal of a court ruling on same-sex marriage. But Republicans fell short of the 51 votes they needed to have their amendments considered. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers skipped those votes rather than commit themselves on either controversial subject.
"Sometimes the process takes a beating," said state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, who pushed an amendment to charge Conway's office the $100,000 the state has contracted to pay private lawyers for the same-sex marriage appeal.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, later told reporters that Republican lawmakers were being obstructionists.
"It's pretty clear they are getting their orders from Washington. They were trying to stop the budget process and bring gridlock to Kentucky," Stumbo said. "We don't have Obamacare in that budget bill. There's not a single word about Obama in it."
For all the talk about cuts, the House version of the budget would add about $300 million in spending and about $984 million in debt to the state's general fund, which pays for most state operations, Republican lawmakers protested during the floor debate.
"I would like to take care of all the needy people in the state," Lee said. "But one of the things we have to do as a co-equal branch and as the one that's responsible for appropriations is, we have to set priorities. And the stark reality is, we don't have enough money."
Rep. Jim Wayne of Louisville was a rare Democratic "no" vote on the budget. Wayne said the legislature continues to ignore serious tax-reform ideas that would raise adequate revenue for the state and relieve the burden on poorer Kentuckians. Among other problems, Wayne said, a college education is becoming unaffordable while state funding for higher education steadily erodes.
"For me to support this budget is an admission of defeat. And I won't make that," Wayne said.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, said he shared Wayne's concern about fast-rising college tuition. Hoover said he also opposed how the budget would shift the cost of campus construction onto community college students by charging them up to $300 a year in fees. When the legislature authorizes projects, it should fund them, he said.
"That's our responsibility as a General Assembly," Hoover said. "It's not fair to students across Kentucky who are seeking a career, who are seeking a vocational education."
The vote on the executive branch budget, House Bill 235, was 53-46. The House then swiftly passed the much smaller budgets for the judicial and legislative branches by 99-0 votes.