We never thought we'd get to say this, but Kentucky's legislature set a good example of openness in government by holding this year's final state budget negotiations in public view.
The budget conference committee meetings were not open to the public but were broadcast by KET, enabling citizens and media to watch a process that's usually sealed off and guarded by state troopers.
Best of all, the televised conference committee sessions produced the first budget that was on time since 2006.
Openness and effectiveness really did go hand in hand.
The process of reaching agreement between House and Senate conferees was aided by the shortage of goodies to fight over in an austere budget that slashes spending on state government and higher education and gives state employees and teachers no raises and retirees no cost of living adjustments.
Frightened by Kentucky's sagging credit rating, lawmakers restrained their usual lust for pork-barrel projects and relied less on one-time money to pay recurring expenses, though with $217 million in non-recurring revenue, the new budget is still a far piece from structural balance.
The legislature largely adhered to Gov. Steve Beshear's budget proposal, but unfortunately it diverged from Beshear's plan by nixing an expansion of early childhood education. Beshear had recommended a modest increase of $15 million.
The legislature also frustrated University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto's plans to rebuild UK's bedraggled campus by refusing to let UK independently take on debt to build academic buildings. The legislature did, however, give the nod to Capilouto's plans to turn over the replacement of aging dorms to a private company.
House and Senate found more to argue about over the use of severance tax revenues. Senate President David Williams raised good points about how revenue from finite resources such as coal is being frittered away on spending that will have no transformative impact on the economies of coal-dependent counties. Sixty-eight pages of severance-tax funded projects in the House budget, everything from Little League baseball equipment to fire trucks, might make some folks back home happy, but they won't set a new economic foundation at a time when a steep drop in Appalachian coal production is predicted.
In a separate bill, the legislature approved using some coal severance money to help finance higher education in coal counties. But the debate about how to make the most of a tax that's supposed to help a coal-dependent region diversify its economy needs to continue. The legislature should consider setting aside a part of the coal severance tax in a trust fund that would grow and produce dividends for coal counties well into the future.