House and Senate representatives began at 5:08 p.m. Thursday to try to iron out differences between the two chambers on the state’s two-year, $21 billion spending plan.
“I’d rather have a root canal and an enema on the same day, but not by the same person,” Senate President Robert Stivers said as he entered room 131 of the Capitol Annex to begin the budget negotiations.
The meeting started in open session with legislative staff spelling out the differences between the two chambers’ versions of the budget and lasted for about two hours.
Stivers said lawmakers would work in private for the rest of the negotiations and it might take several days to reach a compromise.
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The negotiations are to resume at noon Friday. There are no plans to meet Saturday and Sunday because of the Easter weekend. Work is to resume Monday at 10 a.m.
The entire legislature is to meet Friday and next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then adjourn until April 12 for the final day of the 2016 General Assembly. That would give lawmakers the opportunity to override any vetoes by Gov. Matt Bevin.
Earlier Thursday, Bevin issued a statement, saying he was “optimistic that Kentuckians will get a fiscally responsible budget.”
“We have an opportunity to truly change the course of the commonwealth thanks to both the House and Senate finding ways to dedicate more money to our pension system than any previous budget,” he said.
“As the House and Senate negotiate the final budget bill, I encourage them to come to the table with open minds and focus on Kentucky’s future. I will support the efforts to find common ground so that we can address our pension liabilities and invest in the areas that will create economic opportunity both now and for years to come.”
Pension problems are among the most important issues in the negotiations.
The Republican-controlled Senate budget would provide $1.19 billion over the next two years in additional pension contributions to the Kentucky Retirement Systems and the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement Systems. The House, controlled by Democrats, set aside $1.12 billion.
The Senate approved Bevin’s request for a “permanent fund” from various sources to pay down the pension systems’ unfunded liability.
Bevin wanted $500 million in the fund. The Senate provided $250 million, and the House rejected it.
Other major issues the budget conference will have to address include Bevin’s cuts to education and the Senate’s decision to delete $60 million in bonds that the House and Bevin wanted for an expansion of Lexington Convention Center.
Also left up in the air is the judicial budget. Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton has said the courts need more money to prevent the dismissal of about 600 employees.
The budget negotiators include all the House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders plus House budget chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford; Senate budget chairman Chris McDaniel, R-Latonia, and Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson.