Franklin County

Williams calls for school changes

FRANKFORT — As Kentucky lawmakers return to Frankfort at noon Tuesday facing state budget woes, Senate President David Williams is calling for cost-saving measures before raising taxes.

Williams, R-Burkesville, said Monday that the state should consider changing how math is taught in public schools and scrapping the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System

He said the changes could save millions of dollars.

Williams also said Kentucky should look at whether its Medicaid program is in line with those in surrounding states and what effect a federal stimulus package would have on the health care program for the needy.

He added that the Senate with its new transportation committee chairman, Ernie Harris of Crestwood, wants to gauge federal dollars' impact on the state's Road Fund and consider cost-cutting measures in the state's corrections program.

He said they could include requiring inmates to pay for their incarceration with prison-industry jobs and checking on whether some inmates could pay for their health insurance.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear has proposed raising the cigarette tax from 30 cents to $1 a pack and other measures such as three days of unpaid leave for state workers to address a $456.3 million shortfall in the state budget in this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Beshear had little to say about Williams' proposals, but his spokesman, Jay Blanton, said in a statement, "We are heartened by Sen. Williams' clear willingness to work with us to address these serious budget issues. The governor has had ongoing conversations with Sen. Williams over the course of the last few weeks. He has continually indicated his willingness and desire to work together on these issues.

"We look forward to working with both the Senate and the House to resolve this serious budgetary challenge as quickly as possible."

Before raising taxes, Williams said, Kentucky should "look at every effort that we can make to save money, and we will be addressing some of those in the next few days."

Such measures, he said, include changing the state's math curriculum and replacing CATS with multiple-choice or other norm-referenced tests that make it easier to compare student scores.

Williams did not provide specific ideas for changes in the math curriculum.

Advocates of ending CATS say it does not adequately track individual student programs and that it has not prepared Kentucky students for higher studies or to compete with peers from other states.

The 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, or KERA, established much of the testing system.

Bob Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said elimination of CATS "isn't a prudent step."

Millions of federal dollars to the state could be at risk if Kentucky abolishes the testing system, he said.

Asked whether eliminating CATS would save money this fiscal year, Williams said the Senate wants to consider the entire two-year budget.

He said the Senate wants to work with the governor but it is "not going to be rushed into anything."

Williams and Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green, who is being challenged for the House's top position in a leadership race with Democratic Rep. Greg Stumbo of Prestonsburg, said the two chambers' budget committees could meet this month to try to resolve the budget shortfall.

A special legislative session this month, as Beshear initially considered late last year, is appearing more and more unlikely.

Legislative leaders prefer to deal with the budget shortfall during this year's regular session rather than in a special session this month, Beshear said Monday.

But Beshear said he is ready to call a special session immediately if lawmakers reach an agreement on a budget resolution.

Richards said much work remains on addressing the state's financial woes, especially Beshear's proposal to raise the cigarette tax.

Kentucky's 2009 General Assembly is to run for 30 working days. Lawmakers are to spend four days this week electing their leaders and making committee assignments. They then are scheduled to return Feb. 3 and meet 26 days through March 24.

In a special session, any tax increase would need only majority votes in the House and Senate. But in a regular session in odd-numbered years, such measures require at least 60 percent of the vote — or a super-majority — in each chamber to pass.

Beshear said legislative leaders have told him they could get a super-majority vote in their chambers on an agreed-upon proposal.