The House-Senate negotiations to craft a two-year, $21 billion state budget lasted more than three hours Friday without any resolutions while concerns about funding for Kentucky’s courts intensified.
Earlier Friday, the Senate gave final passage to the House’s judicial budget bill — House Bill 306 — on a 27-9 vote without making any of the changes sought by Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton.
Minton warned in recent days that proposed cuts to the judicial system could lead to the loss of 600 jobs, the closing of drug courts that divert addicts into treatment and the end of pre-trial services that allow thousands of criminal defendants to be on supervised release from jail.
He had no comment Friday on the Senate’s acceptance of the House plan for the judicial system.
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The House version of the courts budget included nearly $390 million annually. It found more than $20 million to spare the courts a 4.5 percent cut that Gov. Matt Bevin proposed for the remainder of this fiscal year, ending June 30, after Minton warned that such a cut would force the courts to close for three weeks.
However, the House kept Bevin’s proposed 9 percent spending cut in place for the next two fiscal years while adding several unfunded mandates, such as salary increases for elected circuit court clerks.
Minton had hoped the Senate would head off what he called “catastrophic” problems. The courts already have seen their budgets shrink by 49 percent since 2008, with about 10 percent of their work force lost to job cuts or attrition, he said.
Though the Senate sent the judicial budget bill to Bevin for his signature or veto, lawmakers still have an opportunity to appropriate funds to the courts system in the executive branch budget bill that lawmakers are negotiating. The final budget bill approved in a law-making session takes priority over others.
However, Senate budget chairman Christian McDaniel, R-Latonia, said any changes the budget conference committee makes to the judicial budget would have to be recommended by House Democrats.
“We did not have time to change it,” said McDaniel.
Another sliver of hope for the judicial branch is that the Senate signed off on HB 306 after the House adjourned Friday. The House must receive the bill from the Senate before it goes to the governor. The full House does not meet again until Monday, which means the Senate could reconsider its vote on the bill before the House convenes Monday.
It is more likely that the issue will be addressed one way or the other by the budget conference committee.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said before entering Friday’s negotiations in the Capitol Annex that negotiators will work first on the executive budget. He acknowledged that “it’s a possibility” for the judicial budget to be considered any time before the law-making session ends.
“But the Senate today chose not to take any action on it, so my guess is that it probably will stay there,” Stumbo said.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, continued the finger-pointing, saying in a news release that “House Republicans are the only ones in the Kentucky General Assembly who stood up for the judicial branch in 2016.
“House Republicans warned the House Democrat majority of the devastating effects their draconian cuts would have,” Hoover said. “But House Democrats chose to play petty partisan politics with a judicial system so important to Kentucky and its residents and now we are now faced with 600 jobs lost in the system, more than 17,000 defendants returned to jail, extreme delays in the court system, and over-burdened workloads for those fortunate to even retain their jobs.”
The House-Senate budget conference started Friday at 12:15 p.m. in open session with a discussion about funding education. It adjourned at 3:42 p.m. and is expected to resume Monday at 10 a.m. It had worked about two hours Thursday.
McDaniel said he thinks the committee can finish its work by midnight Monday.
Stumbo said it was “off to a very good start.”
The full legislature is scheduled to meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then return April 12 for its final day to consider overriding any vetoes by Bevin.