Kentucky Politics

Republican lawmakers released a state budget bill over the weekend that would make sure the legislature, and not Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, has final authority in deciding how federal coronavirus relief money gets spent.

The move comes after estimates that Kentucky will receive about $2.4 billion from the recently-passed relief package.

That money can be used for a wide range of needs like testing and vaccination programs, relief for businesses and individuals, infrastructure investment and “premium pay” for essential workers — an additional $13 per hour.

But with time running out on this year’s legislative session, lawmakers are trying to ensure that they get a say in how the money is spent.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Latonia and chair of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said deciding how to spend money should be up to legislators, not the governor.

“It is merely a statement of legislative branch prerogative that we authorize those,” McDaniel said. “We’ve had some very preliminary conversations with the executive branch. I think the time is still here that we can make these productive conversations move forward and appropriately invest in the commonwealth.”

The Senate advanced the budget bill on Monday with a vote of 30-0 and six “pass” votes. The House voted 74-23 to send it to Beshear’s desk.

The bill includes language that bars Beshear from using the relief funds unless the legislature authorized him to do so.

“The state portion of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 shall not be expended or appropriated without the express authority of the General Assembly,” the bill states.

Last year, Beshear used federal money from the CARES Act to fund coronavirus testing, vaccine distribution, eviction relief and other programs — actions lawmakers couldn’t sign off on because they were out of session.

The new budget bill allows Republican legislators to decide if and how to spend the money, after all of Kentucky’s Republican members of Congress voted against the federal package.

If lawmakers do nothing with the money before the end of this year’s legislative session on March 30, the move could force Beshear to call a special legislative session to decide how the money should be spent.

Crystal Staley, Beshear’s communications director, said the governor is having discussions with legislative leaders.

“The Governor has presented to House and Senate leadership a transformational plan that would provide relief to many Kentuckians and create tens of thousands of jobs over the next year by investing the Recovery Act funds. With our country in a recession, the Governor does not believe we should be timid, but instead use these dollars to build the better Kentucky we all deserve,” Staley wrote in a statement.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, said legislators need more information before deciding how to spend the money.

“We can’t go into all the details because one of the problems we have is the federal government hasn’t given us all the details,” Stivers said.

Besides the language blocking the governor from using coronavirus funds, the budget bill is largely a continuation of last year’s spending plan when coronavirus was beginning to spread across the country.

The bill does not include Beshear’s budget requests like state employee raises and relief during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, said the bill doesn’t go far enough and the legislature will likely have to do more this year.

“We’re going to need to pass another budget this year. In that budget, I hope we take up the needs we’ve talked about,” McGarvey said.

Beshear can reject all or parts of the budget bill during his 10-day veto period beginning Wednesday, but the legislature can override him when they return for the final two days of session on March 29 and 30.

This story has been updated.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.