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House leaders hear governor's suggestions, concerns on budget

FRANKFORT — House leaders met with Gov. Steve Beshear on Thursday to discuss his concerns about some of the legislature's changes to a proposed $17 billion budget.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said Beshear had many concerns, adding that "it would take a long time get through them all."

But Stumbo said Beshear specifically questioned provisions in the Senate and House budgets that would require the executive branch to cut non-merit employees and contracts with private companies. The House had asked for $10 million in cuts to political appointees during the two-year budget cycle; the Senate raised that number to $20 million.

The House and Senate also had requested that the government trim the amount of contracts with private companies that do business with the state. The House version called for eliminating $112 million in contracts during two years; the Senate version increased that number to $165.8 million.

"There are flexibility changes that they will need, or at least language that they will need to meet some of these targets," Stumbo said.

Kerri Richardson, a spokeswoman for Beshear, declined to elaborate on his concerns — saying only that the meeting between the governor and Democratic House members was a good one.

Beshear's meeting with House leaders came as the House and Senate entered a second day of budget negotiations.

The Senate's $17.3 billion budget includes deeper cuts to almost all state agencies than the House's $17.5 billion budget. The House's version calls for 2 percent cuts in the first year of the budget and exempts some social services and other programs.

The Senate's version calls for across-the-board cuts of about 1.5 percent on top of the House's 2 percent cuts in the first year, and for a 1 percent cut in the second year.

The House and Senate versions also differ in cuts to K-12 education. The House proposed cutting two instructional days, while the Senate proposed cutting 1.5 percent from the main funding formula for schools and an additional 1 percent in the second year. It restored the two days but did not add any money to pay for them.

The Senate gave schools greater flexibility in how to use some state money but also suspended some rules about classroom size and teacher credentials.

Stumbo said earlier Thursday that he knew the Senate budget would not pass the House as it stands. The cuts to education are too deep, Stumbo said, noting that cuts to one of his local school districts would be more than $600,0000.

Not funding those two school days is an "unfunded mandate," Stumbo said.

"When you cut all across state government, you cut National Guard scholarships, funding for the deaf and hearing impaired, family resource centers ... that's a pretty big political target to put on your back," Stumbo said.

Some education and social service groups are raising concerns about some cuts made under the Senate version.

The Senate version says school systems that have state-funded preschools would not have to hire teachers with a bachelor's degree in early childhood education, which would save the districts money but could reduce quality for the preschool program that serves disabled children and children in poverty, said Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a Lexington-based non-profit.

"This could hurt our most vulnerable children," Heine said. She and others also are concerned about a provision in the Senate budget that would let school districts use parent volunteers rather than employ aides for kindergarten classes.

"I think that parent volunteers are wonderful," Heine said. "But they can't always be there every day."

Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, said that the Senate budget gives school districts the flexibility to make those changes but that those changes aren't mandatory.