Thursday, March 23, 2000

Senate panel OKs budget after slashes

The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — Senate Republican budget-makers slashed money for teachers, troopers, sheriffs and Medicaid to make their spending plan balance without raising taxes. They also grabbed a few million dollars from other programs and invented some new revenue.

        The spending plan was approved by the Appropriations and Revenue Committee Wednesday night, even though Democratic members declined to vote and complained they had seen the final product only minutes before. All Republican members voted for it.

        The plan was put together quietly as Republicans in the Senate try to build their first budget as a majority party in the Senate. The chopping was prompted by their decision to hold the line against any tax increases. Gov. Paul Patton's original budget plan, and the one passed last week by the House, both counted on about $178 million in tax increases.

        Chairman Richie Sanders, R-Franklin, threw the commit tee a curve at the beginning of the meeting by bringing up the bill that contains the tax increase passed by the House and asking whether any members wanted to vote on it.

        “I think it's just a political ploy to bring this up before the committee,” said Sen. Benny Ray Bailey, D-Hindman, who was chairman of the panel when Democrats held a majority two years ago.

        Mr. Bailey, who said the copies of documents he received were still warm from printing, said never in his 21 years in the General Assembly “has the process been so closed.”

        Mr. Sanders said Democratic senators were invited to participate in small groups that went over portions of the budget for the last week. “This process was truly a deliberative process,” Mr. Sanders said.

        Democratic members disputed that: “This is the Senate Republicans' budget,” said Sen. Bob Jackson, D-Murray. “We had basically no input in this process.”

        The biggest budget differences with versions from the House include:

        • $21 million less in state aid to elementary and secondary schools.

        • $16 million less for other education programs, largely aimed at teachers, from recruitment initiatives to professional training.

        • $25 million less for Medicaid administration and benefits. Medicaid is the program that provides health care services to the poor and disabled.

        • $2.3 million less for programs for the mentally retarded.

        • $5.5 million less that would have hired 50 more Kentucky State Police officers.

        • Elimination of all construction and development projects, from $5,000 grants to volunteer fire departments to expansion of Rupp Arena.

        Republican Floor Leader Dan Kelly of Springfield said delays in doing the budget in the House led to a policy of cutting increases added by others. “There simply wasn't time to go through the exercise of determining priorities,” Mr. Kelly said.

        The Senate also jettisoned a House plan to spend cash in the Road Fund set aside for construction projects already under way. Mr. Sanders said it would mean $307 million less in road building in the next two years.

        Mr. Kelly said the budget still provides money for important initiatives, such as $120 million for research endowments at universities and early childhood development.

        Sen. Bob Leeper of Paducah, whose switch to the Republican Party last year gave the GOP its majority, said the budget would be embraced by voters because no taxes will be increased.

        Budget officials in the Patton administration are skeptical of some of the plans and whether the budget meets the constitutional obligation that the amount spent doesn't exceed the amount taken in.

        “We're thinking maybe they used some one-time money for some recurring things,” said Bill Hintze, deputy budget director.

        Among the dollars the Senate grabbed were $8 million a year from the Petroleum Storage Tank Environmental Fund. The fund is financed by a 1.4 cent per gallon tax on gasoline. The money goes to dig up and replace old leaking gas tanks. Bill Hintze, deputy budget director, said taking the money will mean fewer tanks will be removed, making a longer wait for many old gas station sites to be cleaned up.

        The Senate plan may also run afoul of one of the legislature's own laws that requires budgets to be based on the revenue projections of the official forecasting group. The Senate plan depends on $2 million more in receipts each year it predicts from the Revenue Cabinet, based on an assumption that putting $200,000 more each year in collection efforts will yield 10 times that amount in more tax collections.

        Not everything was cut. The Senate committee version increases to $500 the annual payment to senators to buy stationery. The House had increased the payment, which is now $50, to $250 for all lawmakers. Mr. Sanders said senators deserve more because they represent nearly three times as many people.

        The Senate could vote on the budget as early as today, and the House is nearly certain to reject it. The result will be a conference committee to resolve differences.

        But not all the differences can be resolved, said House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville. “I'd make it 50-50 we go home without a budget,” Mr. Clark said.

        The state fiscal year ends on June 30.


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