Politics & Government

Prosecutors warn of layoffs, furloughs if budgets are cut again

FRANKFORT — The state's prosecutors warned lawmakers Tuesday that they will have to lay off or furlough workers under Gov. Steve Beshear's proposed two-year state budget.

"We've got two options — layoffs or furloughs," said Chris Cohron, the commonwealth's attorney for Warren County and legislative chair for the state's commonwealth's attorney association.

Beshear has proposed a cut of 2.2 percent for the commonwealth's and county attorneys. That's less than the 8.4 percent cut he has proposed for most state agencies for the first year of the two-year budget. Under Beshear's proposal, the agencies generally would receive the same amount in the second year of the budget.

Cohron and John Estill, the Mason County attorney, told a House budget review subcommittee Tuesday that more than 95 percent of their budgets are spent on workers. Any cuts would mean a reduction in hours for employees through furloughs or layoffs.

Commonwealth's attorneys furloughed staff in 2008 and 2010. In 2008, many offices had to furlough staff for three weeks.

"We are the most furloughed people in Kentucky," Cohron said.

Beshear had proposed a two-year budget of $65.4 million for county attorneys and $75.8 million for commonwealth's attorneys. The groups would like their original budgets of $67.7 million for county attorneys and $80.5 million for commonwealth's attorneys to be restored.

County attorneys handle misdemeanors and child support enforcement, and they often are legal counsel for the county fiscal courts. Commonwealth's attorneys handle felony prosecutions.

Attorney General Jack Conway told the panel Tuesday that his office had cut spending 37 percent since 2008.

His staff is down from 238 in 2008 to 189 now, Conway said. The office has a host of responsibilities, including representing taxpayers in utility rate cases, prosecuting Medicaid fraud, pursuing consumer protection cases and tackling cyber crimes.

In 1998, Conway said his office had 13 attorneys who worked on utility-rate cases on behalf of taxpayers. Now there are five attorneys who work on those cases, he said.

His office has had to cut about $500,000 in victim advocate grants to counties because of the dwindling budget, Conway said.

Beshear is proposing an additional 8.4 percent cut to Conway's General Fund budget for the next two-year budget. Conway asked lawmakers to set his office's General Fund budget at a 2008 level of $14.3 million. Beshear's proposal calls for spending $10 million in the next fiscal year and $10.3 million the following year.

"We do face the possibility of layoffs," Conway said of the proposed 8.4 percent cut.

Conway said he might not have enough money in his budget to pay for expert witnesses in utility-rate cases, which has happened in the past. The office also might not be able to pursue some civil cases, including some that ultimately return money to the state, he said.

"We have seen delays in rendering opinions," Conway said of the cumulative effect of budget cuts.

Rep. Royce Adams, D-Dry Ridge, chairman of the House Budget Subcommittee on General Government, Finance and Public Protection, reminded prosecutors that the House had softened previous budget cuts to prosecutors.

Several lawmakers said they hope to do so again but noted that money is particularly tight this year.

"There's just not enough water in the bucket to quench the thirst," said Rep. Wilson Stone, D-Scottsville.

Beshear's budget proposal includes about $286 million in spending cuts over the next two years. The legislature must approve a budget by mid-April.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee heard an overall description of Beshear's budget proposal, which includes an additional $3.5 million for the Kentucky Horse Park this fiscal year. The Horse Park, a state park, needs more money to pay for operational expenses — including utilities — for new facilities that were built for the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

State Budget Director Mary Lassiter told senators that the recession has hurt the Horse Park. But Lassiter said the state benefits from the sales taxes generated by people who visit the park.

"Do we have any assurance from them that they're doing everything they can to make cuts within their agency to balance their budget?" asked Sen. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon.

Lassiter said administrators think the Horse Park's cash flow problems will be a one-time occurrence.