Gov. Steve Beshear said Thursday he will move forward with plans to generate more state revenue, but those efforts would have to clear a solidly Republican state Senate with whom Beshear has an increasingly frigid relationship.
Atop Beshear's list of options to erase a projected $300 million budget shortfall is a potential increase in the state's 30-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes. Beshear has suggested a special legislative session to address that or other measures, but any firm plan will come after Thanksgiving when key revenue projections have been released.
"At that point, I need to put together a proposed plan, and then I want to take that plan out to the people of this state to get some feedback. I want to discuss it with legislators to get their feedback," he said Thursday. "So realistically, we're looking at after Christmas or after the first of the year to be in a position to take any kind of official action."
But Republican Senate President David Williams has repeatedly balked at the idea of raising any taxes, including on cigarettes.
Emboldening his stance are the results of Tuesday's election, in which Republicans turned back Beshear and the Democrats' bids to take over three GOP-controlled Senate seats.
"He goes out in extra trips and appears with the candidates," Williams said of Beshear's role in the election. "I don't see how he can be involved in that kind of thing and keep the specter of not being political."
Beshear raised money for and appeared at official events with the losing Democratic candidate in the open Republican seat in the 9th District in southern Kentucky and the challenger in Northern Kentucky's 23rd District. He also headlined a fund-raiser for Carroll Hubbard, the former congressman who served prison time in the 1990s for federal campaign finance violations and who ran unsuccessfully in the 1st District.
Earlier this year, Williams and Beshear wrestled over capturing the Eastern Kentucky state Senate seat left vacant when Daniel Mongiardo became lieutenant governor. Williams won that fight, too.
Although Democrats successfully held all of their state Senate seats on Tuesday, they still would have to pick up five seats to wrest control from Republicans. The GOP holds the chamber 21 to 15 with one independent and one Republican-leaning seat in Bowling Green that will be open because of the election of state Sen. Brett Guthrie to Congress.
Despite long odds, Beshear remains hopeful Democrats can take control of the Senate before his term ends in 2011.
"Oh, certainly it's possible," Beshear said.
Williams said he was baffled by that response.
"It doesn't sound like it's too smart a thing to say before you go into a legislative session," he said. "That doesn't mean on major issues I won't work with him. I will work with him on major issues facing the commonwealth."
Still, Williams said, he's not convinced that the state's financial problems are dire enough to require tax increases.
"Obviously that's going to be Sen. Williams' decision," Beshear said. "But I think that he will look at this situation and I hope he will look at this situation objectively and work with me and work with the House."
Beshear, last month, said the state is on pace to collect 3.3 percent less income — about $300 million — than the roughly $8.7 billion that the General Assembly budgeted for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2009.
Beshear also contends it's still possible to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow casino gambling in Kentucky. Passage in the Senate requires a super-majority vote of 23 senators and Williams has steadfastly opposed any effort to expand gambling.
"Depending upon the issues involved, I hope and expect folks on both sides of the aisle will sit down and try to work together," Beshear said. "We face some unprecedented financial crisis right now. It's going to take all of us — Republicans and Democrats — to come up with solutions, both short-term and long-term, for our people."
Beshear said he doesn't think Maryland voters' passage of slot machines at race tracks on Tuesday will affect the gambling debate in Kentucky. But he acknowledged it does increase competition for Kentucky's horse industry.
He also said expanding gambling is a long-term plan to generate state revenue and won't necessarily help the current economic troubles.
"The gaming issue, because of how long it would take to generate any income, really doesn't play a role in the immediate crisis that we're in," he said. "Obviously it's an issue I'm still interested in. It's certainly a way to produce revenue for this state, so we will see how legislators respond to that in due course."