Even as Kentucky lawmakers were belatedly approving a new budget on May 28, a key assumption of the document was already unraveling.
In Washington that same day, Democrats in the U.S. House abandoned plans for the $24 billion six-month extension of expanded Medicaid benefits. Those benefits are now set to expire Dec. 31, but the new two-year state spending plan assumed they would be extended until June 30, 2011.
Kentucky expected to get an estimated $238 million from the benefits extension. Without that money and the federal matching dollars it would generate, Gov. Steve Beshear warned the state's congressional delegation by letter this week, the potential hole in the state Medicaid budget could reach $1 billion.
"A budget hole of that magnitude threatens the entire budget, including funding of priority areas like education, public safety and health care," Beshear wrote.
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Such a prospect emphasizes how foolhardy it was for legislative leaders to include this assumption in the budget.
Any extension of the expanded benefits was always an iffy proposition. And it became even more unlikely with the rise of the Tea Party movement after Republican Scott Brown captured the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's seat in a January special election, thus depriving Senate Democrats of a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority.
In other words, legislative leaders should have seen this coming. And we suspect they did, even though they kept up their Pollyanna performance throughout the regular and special General Assembly sessions.
They knew their smoke would dissipate, their mirrors would lose the ability to distort and the illusion of a balanced budget they were creating would vanish eventually.
We suspect they were hoping it would happen later rather than sooner, though. After Nov. 2 no doubt would have suited them nicely, since putting off the tough decisions until the next election cycle has passed remains their one guiding principle.
And that's no assumption. Just the political reality in a state plagued by "leaders" who refuse to actually lead.