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For the last several years, the biggest challenge facing the General Assembly and Governor Steve Beshear has been keeping the state on track as it weathers the toughest worldwide recession in more than 70 years.
It hasn't been easy, with cuts totaling more than $1 billion. If there is a silver lining, it's that we have been able to shield the classroom and other critical services during this trying time. We also avoided the drastic steps many other states have taken, some of which have laid off thousands of teachers and state employees and raised taxes significantly.
We haven't had to do either, and the proposed budget for state government that the Kentucky House of Representatives passed on Wednesday maintains that positive trend for the next two years.
The House budget largely follows Governor Beshear's plan, which he gave the legislature about two months ago. Like he recommends, the House agrees that we must live within our means, but to do that, most state agencies would see cuts of 8.4 percent, though some areas would see less or even a modest increase.
For example, we don't cut the overall total for the per-pupil funding formula known as SEEK, but we understand a growing student population means schools would have to stretch that money a little further.
The House trims post-secondary schools by about six percent, and we also limit how many new facilities they would like to build with their own revenue. We want to make sure our debt level remains reasonable and the schools don't take on more than they can handle financially given the state's limited resources.
There are no proposed cuts to student financial aid in the House budget, and that includes the lottery-based KEES scholarships that high schoolers earn for college.
The House budget differs slightly from the governor's in a couple of key areas in education. We provide more money for schools' family resource centers and programs like gifted education, and more would be given to KET, because further cuts could significantly hamper its ability to meet its statewide mission.
We also believe more money is needed for Meals on Wheels and other services helping the elderly, and we add more money to help spruce up our state parks.
There are some other bright spots in the budget. Last year's major reforms of Medicaid and the criminal justice system, for example, are starting to show some serious savings. Moving most of the state's Medicaid population to managed care - something the 16-county Louisville region has had for more than a dozen years - is expected to save $372 million in the upcoming budget.
The criminal justice reform, meanwhile, is expected to reduce our prison population by 4,600 inmates over the next two years, which is a far cry from 2007, when we led the nation in prison growth. The savings from this smaller population will enable us to close a private prison; increase treatment options for substance abuse; and allow us to send nearly $9 million to our counties to help with their jail expenses.
Elsewhere in the House budget, money would be available for a fourth veterans nursing home, if it's given the go-ahead by the federal government, and we lay the groundwork for an adult abuse registry, which will ensure those convicted of harming the elderly do not work in jobs involving care of our older citizens.
To help raise money, Governor Beshear and the House also recommend a tax amnesty program, in an effort to get those who owe back taxes to come forward without paying as high a penalty. Our hope is that this will bring in about $55 million.
The overall theme of this budget is fairness. We recognize that some areas, such as the classroom, need to be protected as much as possible, but in other cases, we tried to spread the cuts as broadly as possible. That means all three branches of government are taking the same reduction, and that state employees and their retirees alike will not see any raises.
The next two years will be difficult, but there is hope that, if state revenues continue growing, it's possible that the outlook will brighten in the months ahead.
For now, the House awaits whatever changes the Senate might propose. If all goes as scheduled, a compromise will be voted on by the end of the month, and the budget will take effect on July 1st and run through June 30, 2014.
On a more personal note, I want to add that the General Assembly is committed to doing all it can to help those victims who lost so much from the devastating storms on March 2. My colleagues and I have raised more than $20,000 to donate to those most affected, and we will do whatever it takes to help these communities get back on their feet. Some communities, like West Liberty, were all but destroyed.
As always, I value your opinion on legislative matters and would enjoy hearing your thoughts or suggestions on the issues of the day. You can always reach me by writing to Room 329B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601.
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.