Gov. Matt Bevin has vetoed six bills and portions of a seventh as the 2016 legislative session nears its conclusion on Friday.
Perhaps most significantly, Bevin struck two mandatory expenditures from the $832 million, two-year judicial branch budget to give the courts more money for their general operations. One, a pay raise for circuit court clerks, would have cost $2.1 million. The other, fund transfers that lawmakers ordered to help balance the state’s General Fund, would have cost $23.5 million.
Chief Justice John Minton has warned that Kentucky’s judicial branch would have to fire hundreds of employees and close drug courts and other critical programs to deal with the 9 percent budget cut Bevin recommended in January.
In his veto message for House Bill 306, Bevin said he agreed that state government must be cut to help pay down the $36 billion public pension shortfall. But “the fund transfers required by HB 306 go beyond the limit of what the commonwealth should require of the judicial branch,” he wrote. “If enacted, these fund transfers would risk placing the judiciary in a position that could potentially negatively impact Kentuckians’ access to the courts.”
On Friday, the legislature will consider a separate measure, Senate Bill 126, that has been amended to include $36.4 million in supplemental funding for the judicial branch. That bill combined with Bevin’s vetoes could give the courts the fiscal relief they sought.
In an email sent this week to court officials across the state, Minton said he’s “hopeful.”
“We have continued to work closely with House and Senate leadership to secure appropriate funding for the judicial branch, and I appreciate their willingness to provide this critical funding. I believe both chambers are aware of the great cost to the commonwealth if the judicial branch were faced with further deep reductions after losing 49 percent of our budget since 2008,” Minton wrote.
Not everyone was gratified by Bevin’s action on the judicial branch budget. Circuit court clerks around Kentucky are paid from 3 percent to 12 percent less than other elected county leaders, such as judge-executives and county clerks. They were counting on the budgetary language Bevin vetoed to boost their pay.
“It’s not really pay raises, it’s pay parity, to bring us up to the same level of wages that are paid to other county officials,” said Bell Circuit Court Clerk Colby Slusher, president of the Kentucky Association of Circuit Court Clerks. “The vetoes were disappointing. But we’ll move forward and try to find another way to fairly compensate our officials.”
The House and Senate can vote Friday to override Bevin’s vetoes if lawmakers wish. A constitutional majority — half of the chamber’s members, plus one — is necessary for a veto override to succeed.
All I can do now is look at staffing. I don’t have anywhere else to cut.
Kathryn Gabhart, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission
Bevin’s other vetoes include:
▪ Senate Bill 22 as amended by the House, which would have required assisted-living centers to educate their mostly elderly residents about the risks of the flu virus and the benefits of flu vaccinations. The bill would not have required the centers to provide vaccinations.
“Senate Bill 22 is an example of unnecessary government intrusion into the private sector,” Bevin wrote in his veto message. “It instills little to no confidence that there will be any measurable health benefit resulting from this increased regulation of private assisted-living facilities.”
Rep. David Watkins, D-Henderson, sponsored the flu education language. Watkins called the Republican governor “hypocritical” for vetoing his measure while backing anti-abortion bills this year that would affect women’s access to medical care, such as requiring ultrasounds and live “informed consent” counseling before they could obtain an abortion.
“He talks out of both sides of his mouth,” said Watkins, a doctor. “He worries about government intrusion into the private sector when we tell folks about the value of getting a flu shot. At the same time, he wants the state in the examining room with women so it can tell doctors how they should proceed based on his own personal beliefs.”
▪ Senate Bill 153, to establish new amounts in the state’s child support guidelines table. Bevin called the bill “untenable” because it would “require less financial support in most instances than was required when the existing guidelines were put in place in 1990.”
▪ Senate Bill 196, which would have established the statewide Books for Brains Program to distribute books each month to about 55,000 children age 5 or younger. It would have been staffed by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, which estimated annual operational costs of $1.4 million, to be paid for by various sources.
This bill would have added responsibilities to the Department for Libraries and Archives “with no funding to cover them,” Bevin said in his veto message.
“There is nothing to prevent currently existing, early literacy programs from continuing their successful growth and expansion by seeking gifts, grants and other public or private fund sources that may be made available for such a purpose,” Bevin wrote.
▪ House Bill 19, which was meant to promote organ and bone marrow donations by providing a tax credit for employers who give their workers a paid leave of absence during the time they donate. A fiscal note attached to the bill predicted “minimal” impact on the state budget.
Bevin called the bill “a noble and well-intentioned piece of legislation” in his veto message. But as with the much larger HB 423, the governor said he could not support lawmakers adding piecemeal tax breaks given the state’s massive pension shortfall.
▪ House Bill 225, which would have helped honorably discharged military veterans get occupational or professional licenses from state agencies if the training they received during their military service could reasonably be expected to have provided them with the necessary skills and experience.
“HB 225 is well intentioned but poorly written,” Bevin said in his veto message. “For example, by first stating in subsection two that certain things ‘shall’ be done, and then immediately noting in subsection three the ways by which an ‘administrative body’ can determine that ‘shall’ does not actually mean ‘shall.’ ... This bill would require any confusion resulting from its passage to be sorted out in a court of law.”
▪ House Bill 423, a revenue bill that included a collection of tax breaks that would have cost the state an estimated $24.9 million in 2017 and $37.2 million in 2018. Among the costlier items were a plan to gradually let the coal-producing counties keep all coal-severance tax funds and sales tax breaks for livestock medicine and beekeepers.
Bevin said this was not an appropriate way to award “tax expenditures,” which is Frankfort jargon for tax breaks.
“Given the overall financial condition of the commonwealth and its massive unfunded pension liabilities, now is not the time to pass additional tax expenditures, however meritorious each provision may be,” Bevin wrote in his veto message.
Jason Bailey, executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said he agreed with Bevin. Lawmakers should modernize Kentucky’s tax code rather than continue to slice away at the state’s revenue sources, Bailey said.
“The legislature has gotten into this bad habit of passing tax breaks like this each and every session,” Bailey said. “They each may seem small at the time, but they add up, and once they’re passed, they’re almost never examined again. I think it needs to stop.”
A big loser in this veto is the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, responsible for acting as the legal watchdog of the Bevin administration. The ethics commission has warned that it will have to lay off its sole investigator and auditor because of the budget cuts Bevin recommended. HB 423 would have increased the agency’s budget by $127,000 a year by boosting lobbyist registration fees and letting the commission keep penalties it collects for ethics violations.
But that proposal died with the veto, leaving the ethics commission with a $60,000 annual deficit in the next budget.
“All I can do now is look at staffing. I don’t have anywhere else to cut,” said Kathryn Gabhart, executive director of the ethics commission.