FRANKFORT — House and Senate leaders met for nearly three hours behind closed doors Wednesday to begin negotiations on a two-year, $17 billion budget.
Two years ago, the two sides began their budget negotiations by discussing their differences in public. But this year, they opted to keep the public and the media out.
Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said House and Senate leaders decided to close the proceedings because they thought the two sides would be more candid in private.
"We wanted some frank discussions," Williams said. "No decisions are being made at this particular juncture, and when the decisions are made it will be a public document — everyone will be able to see that. In the past, in the beginning of these meetings we have had some sparring that went on, and we wanted to avoid that at this particular time."
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, agreed.
"It works better doing it this way," Stumbo said. "We get our business done quicker."
The nearly three-hour meeting focused on line-by-line differences between the House and Senate versions of House Bill 290, the executive branch budget.
Stumbo and Williams remained optimistic that they could reach an agreement by this weekend on one of the leanest budgets in recent memory. Revenue forecasts show a little more than a $1 billion shortfall for the next two years.
The Senate passed a two-year $17.3 billion budget Monday that included deeper cuts than the House's $17.5 billion budget.
The House had proposed cutting two school days, a move that would save $72 million during the two years. The Senate, meanwhile, made cuts to the main funding formula for schools and added back the two school days.
Although the Senate did not provide additional money to pay for those school days, Senate leaders say they have given school districts more leeway on how to use their capital projects money to make up for those cuts.
The Senate also axed nearly $1 billion in projects that the House had included in its budget, which it said would help stimulate the economy and hire or retain 25,000 workers. The Senate has countered that now is not the time to dig the state deeper into debt by borrowing money for the projects.
Stumbo said earlier Wednesday that he expected the two sides to come to an agreement before Tuesday, when the House and Senate adjourn.
"It's probably about $100 million," Stumbo said of the differences between the House and Senate versions of HB 290. "We've had greater differences before."
Williams said after the conference committee meeting that much of it focused on explaining why each chamber made the cuts it did.
"I thought we made a lot of progress educating each other before we start discussing the real difficult differences that we have," Williams said.
One key issue that was settled early was which version of the budget — the House's or Senate's — to use as the working document for negotiations. That issue has been a source of contention in the past.
Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, and Sen. Bob Leeper, I-Paducah, the budget chairmen for the two chambers, agreed before negotiations began to start with a document that showed the differences between the two budgets.
House and Senate leaders will resume the budget negotiations Thursday.