Can they find common ground?
by Liam Niemeyer, Kentucky Lantern
December 19, 2023
When Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear unveiled his $136.6 billion two-year budget proposal on Monday, he told reporters he had started “good conversations” with the GOP-dominated legislature and already had meetings with leadership of both chambers.
His budget proposal — which calls for 11% across-the-board raises for school employees, paying for universal preschool and fully funding the state’s Medicaid program — was lauded by the minority of Democrats in the legislature and advocates that had called for investments in education, health care and more.
What was absent on Tuesday was reaction from GOP legislative leaders who are backed by veto-proof supermajorities and who will shape the budget in the legislative session that begins Jan. 2.
Requests sent Tuesday to spokespeople for Kentucky House and Senate leadership, seeking interviews with the chairs of the Senate and House appropriations and revenue committees, were either not returned or declined.
Republican legislative leadership and Beshear have had a frosty relationship in working together throughout the Democratic governor’s first term in office, with overrides of Beshear’s vetoes of bills commonplace at the end of each legislative session. At least one Republican House leader on election night last month said the governor “had no interest in working” with GOP lawmakers during the last term.
Beshear broke with tradition Monday by presenting his budget before the legislative session has convened, his response to House Republicans’ break with tradition in 2022 when they upstaged him by filing a two-year spending plan before the governor had delivered a budget or a budget to the legislature. Terry Brooks, the executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Advocates applaud Beshear’s education proposals
Terry Brooks, the executive director of the nonprofit Kentucky Youth Advocates, recognizes the past four years between the legislature and the governor haven’t been cooperative.
“I think one of the political challenges that the governor, (Senate) President (Robert) Stivers and (House) Speaker (David) Osborne face is: Can they make it OK to agree? Because it’s almost become the politically correct position not to agree,” Brooks said.
Despite that, he doesn’t want the two sides to let partisanship make them lose sight of the “remarkable” number of areas both sides can come together on to help Kentucky’s children.
His organization praised Beshear’s budget for allocating funding directly to teacher raises instead of allocating funding through the state’s school district funding system that doesn’t guarantee the same amount of raises across school districts. Brooks also applauded investments for mental health services for youth detained in the juvenile justice system, along with monies to fully fund transportation costs for school districts.
While there are some aspects of Beshear’s budget that he doesn’t believe will “see the light of day” in the legislature — specifically universal preschool — he said the governor’s approach on juvenile justice aligns well with the General Assembly. As for teacher raises, Brooks said lawmakers “should act with vigor” to designate a specific pay increase for educators.
“We can debate if that should be 11% or 14%, or 9%. I mean, those are honorable discussions,” Brooks said. “But whether or not they should dedicate a stream of funding for compensation, I don’t think is.”
The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonpartisan organization focused on improving education in Kentucky, said in an analysis that the governor’s public education spending proposals largely meet, and exceed in some cases, the needs of educators both in school districts and post-secondary institutions.
Kentucky groups call for spending more from rainy day fund on neglected needs
Some advocates are calling on Beshear and the legislature to invest even more in specific needs, pointing to the record $3.7 billion balance in the state’s Budget Reserve Trust Fund, also known as the “rainy day” fund. A coalition of about 40 groups is calling on the state to use recurring revenue in the rainy day fund to pay for neglected needs in education, infrastructure and more. Nonprofit organizations engaged in building homes in areas where housing was lost to disasters were prominent in this year’s inaugural parade, Dec. 12, 2023, in Frankfort. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)
Adrienne Bush, the executive director of the Kentucky Homeless and Housing Coalition, one of the groups that are part of the coalition, said she believes using one-time monies from the state’s large “rainy day” fund could build homes that are “permanent assets in communities.”
“I do think that the dividends will pay off at both the family level and the community level and eventually the state level as well,” Bush said.
Affordable housing advocates including Bush in the beginning of the year called on lawmakers to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding to help rebuild housing in communities struck in recent years by tornadoes in Western Kentucky and floods in Eastern Kentucky. Lawmakers instead created a trust fund for rural housing and invested $20 million into it, which Bush and other advocates said at the time they were grateful for.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds are being allocated in Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky to help rebuild housing, though at least one analysis acknowledged the federal funding in Western Kentucky wouldn’t completely solve the region’s housing shortage.
Beshear’s budget proposes to put $10 million into a separate affordable housing trust fund run by the Kentucky Housing Corporation. Bush is appreciative of that investment but said “it’s not nearly enough to make a dent” in the state’s overall affordable housing shortage. She said her organization would like to see $40 million invested into the state’s trust fund for rural housing and $70 million invested into the state’s trust fund for affordable housing.
Bush doesn’t have an answer when asked how to solve past political impasses between the governor and the legislature.
“Meeting the housing needs of Kentuckians across the commonwealth could be a great place to start,” she said.
House Democrats praised the Beshear budget in a statement:”Our school employees deserve adequate raises; our youngest citizens need the boost that universal preschool would provide; and more families should have affordable access to clean drinking water and broadband internet. This budget is proof that these and many other things are not beyond our reach, and it will be a travesty if the budget ultimately enacted pretends that we can keep doing more with less. The last thing we need is to have $5 billion or more of our hard-earned tax dollars sitting idle for the next two years.”
Finding bipartisanship on the budget in next year’s legislative session may be easier said than done.
Tres Watson, a former spokesperson for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said the GOP-dominated legislature doesn’t have an incentive right now to work with Beshear, but the governor needs the legislature “if there’s something he legitimately wants.”
Watson said he believes there are conservative arguments to be made that implementing universal preschool and investing in child care facilities could save the state money in the long term, but Beshear isn’t speaking to Republican lawmakers in a way that could convince them on those issues.
“He wants to make his political argument and not make an argument that would actually sway this specific legislature on those issues,” Watson said. “I would assume throw out whatever the governor has laid out, and you’re going to see a whole new document here the first week of session in January” when House Republicans introduce their budget.
He specifically pointed to a part of the budget proposal that called for using one-time funds to cover bridge tolls paid by Jefferson County residents crossing the Ohio River. Republicans might be interested in using the one-time funds to pay down the debt on the bridges to get rid of the tolls more quickly, he said, not give “handouts to Louisvillians” via the tax credits.
“That’s not how Republicans instinctively are going to spend state money,” Watson said. “He’s throwing something out that Louisville voters will probably react positively to, just reflexively, and then when it doesn’t happen, Democrat legislative candidates in Louisville can say, ‘Well, we could have done this but if it weren’t for the Republicans.’”
Trey Grayson, a lobbyist and former Republican Kentucky secretary of state, said after elections, even when the same people get reelected, there’s often an opportunity for a “reset” of working relationships between politicians.
“That’s something I think that remains to be seen.” Grayson said. “I certainly don’t want the legislature and the governor to be at war. It’d be nice if they work together. But obviously they have different priorities.” The chamber of the Kentucky House of Representatives, where spending and tax bills, including the state budget, must originate and Republicans hold a supermajority. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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