FRANKFORT — Aware of Kentuckians' disgust with the $63,000-a-day cost for last week's special legislative session, leading lawmakers say they want to make sure there's no repeat two years from now.
Although the General Assembly had 60 work days that spanned more than three months earlier this year to approve the state's various two-year spending plans, they found themselves holed up in the Capitol Saturday night trying to hammer out the politically-tricky details of a road-building plan.
"I guess it's our punishment for not getting our job done in 60 days," House Speaker Greg Stumbo said on the sixth day of a special law-making session that extended into the holiday weekend.
Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he has been talking with Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and the House and Senate budget chairmen about new policies to speed up the budget process and make sure lawmakers finish their work during their regular sessions.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Williams said this weekend that they support any move that would save Kentucky taxpayers' money.
Beshear noted that the legislature already receives the budget requests of government agencies at the same time as the governor's budget staff.
"Changing the law is unnecessary; more efficient use of time could improve results," he said.
Leading lawmakers mostly blame Beshear for this year's budget debacle, saying he presented a proposed spending plan in late January that was dead on arrival because it called for allowing slot machines at racetracks to generate more than $750 million for the state.
Ultimately, the Democrat-led House and the Republican-led Senate failed to agree on a budget before they adjourned on April 15, a deadline set by the Kentucky Constitution.
There were philosophical disagreements over how much to cut education programs and how best to stimulate the economy. The House wanted to spur employment with building projects while the Senate preferred to offer tax breaks to businesses.
Earlier this month, Beshear offered a compromise two-year, $17.3 billion budget that did not rely on expanded gambling. Both chambers approved the plan Friday night in a special session that began Monday.
"I would hope that in the future we are not caught off-guard as we were in this year's regular session by not building a budget from the ground up," Stumbo said.
Stumbo said lawmakers will begin before the 2012 General Assembly to formulate a budget "just as if we were creating it in the same manner as the governor."
"If the governor presents a budget that we can't work with, we will be at least farther along in the process," he said.
Now, governors and their administrations start working on a proposed budget several months before the start of legislative sessions in even-numbered years. The governor does not reveal the administration's budget plan until late January.
The process gives the House only a few weeks to deal with the governor's proposed budget and even less time for the Senate to make its own changes to the House version of the budget.
In the future, legislators should focus more on the broad outline of a budget in the months leading up to a legislative session, Williams said.
He noted that time-consuming annual sessions make it more difficult for citizen legislators to serve and there is "a real reticence" for lawmakers to meet often in the interim between sessions.
"But we must redirect ourselves and direct our chairmen to try to get into more detailed preparations for a session and a budget during the interim," he said.
The daily pay for a legislator in a session and during the interim is the same — $188.22.
Many rank-and-file lawmakers say they back speeding up the budget process, noting that voters expect elected leaders to get their job done on time.
"Not enough work gets done during the interim process, and that would go a long way toward ironing out kinks that inevitably occur in the budget process," said Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington.
Stein said she is quite familiar with Kentuckians' disdain for special legislative sessions.
"Truer words were never spoken that we were here in regular session this year to do one job — to pass a budget," she said. "And the body failed on that. We passed a budget for the legislative branch in regular session but not the state executive budget."
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he hopes ways can be found to agree quickly on the broad tenets of a budget, allowing more time for negotiations over items that play on the "deep philosophical differences between the House and Senate."
"I was pretty optimistic because we started out with general agreement but it got bogged down when we had little time to work on it regarding debt and taxes," Thayer said. "Perhaps if we could get started earlier and establish the parameters of what we will and will not be for, (that) will help the process."