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House budget helps families

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By Terry Mills

When the Kentucky House of Representatives adopted its two-year budget several weeks ago, my colleagues and I had three main priorities: Streamline government; protect education and our most vulnerable citizens; and kick-start our economy.

Even while facing a billion-dollar deficit, the House was able to accomplish all three without placing an unreasonable burden on anyone. We cut back in many areas but were able to continue protecting our school's per-pupil funding, known as SEEK, and other such vital school programs as family resource and youth services centers and KEES, the lottery-supported scholarship. We also joined the governor in finding significant ways to make Medicaid more efficient while keeping core health service programs intact.

The highlight of the House budget was our "Kentucky Jobs for Kentucky Families" program, which would add or retain as many as 25,000 jobs in an economy that lost more than 80,000 last year. We believe that by investing now, when both construction costs and interest rates are low, we can and should rebuild many of our oldest schools while providing better water and sewer service and roads.

Unfortunately, our jobs program did not find much support in the state Senate, which instead favored across-the-board cuts that may seem equal on the surface but would have been especially tough for our schools and citizens in need. That budget would have led to layoffs for teachers and larger classroom sizes. It also would have hampered our ability to help people when they need it most as they struggle through the nation's worst economic crisis in decades.

Senate leaders say they believe the House's jobs program would have the state take on too much debt. This is erroneous on two levels.

First, our budget borrowed less than what the governor recommended in his budget, and just four-fifths of a percent more than what the Senate suggested. Second, much of what the House would borrow would be used to help school districts rebuild or replace those facilities in most need of repair; they would oversee the investment, not the state.

So, for less than one cent of each state tax dollar, we can put tens of thousands of people back to work and remove every dilapidated school in the state while bringing better infrastructure to thousands of families and businesses alike.  It seems like such an easy decision to make, but one apparently favored only by the House.

Although budget negotiations between House and Senate leaders ended on Wednesday, there is still time for a compromise to be reached before April 15th, when the legislative session must end. The House is committed to returning to the bargaining table, but we feel strongly that any agreement must help get people back to work while avoiding the kind of short-term cuts that could lead to long-term problems.

It is imperative to get a budget this month if we are to avoid a special session.  Ultimately, we have to have a budget in place before July 1st to avoid having to close a wide array of state agencies, which is what would happen under a ruling earlier this decade by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

As House and Senate leaders try to find a compromise in the days ahead, it is important to note that our differences are relatively small, certainly when compared to the total size of the budget, which is a little more than $17 billion over two years.  There is plenty of time for a final spending plan to be enacted, and more than enough room for both sides to meet in the middle.

While it is disappointing that we could not adopt a budget as hoped this past week, there were many other accomplishments this legislative session. I will dedicate my next column to many of them.

For now, I want to emphasize how much I appreciate the many calls, letters and emails I have received during the last three months. My colleagues and I could not do our job without them.

If you would like to take part as well, now or later in the year, I can be reached by writing to Room 329B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.  My office phone number is 502-564-8100, ext. 684.  My email address is terry.mills@lrc.ky.gov.

You can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.