After a five-hour debate, the state House of Representatives approved a budget bill on Wednesday. All 53 House Democrats voted in favor of the bill, while all 47 Republicans abstained.
The measure would restore cuts to K-12 and higher education made under Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget. It also would increase the state’s contribution to the teacher retirement system by taking money Bevin set aside for future contributions to the woefully underfunded pension systems.
The bill now heads to the Republican-led Senate, where it’s expected to change.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, said the budget was an “education statement” by the House.
“I’d rather have the vote saying, ‘I voted in favor of restoring those cuts, I voted in favor of reducing the debt, I voted in favor of making sure the pension systems were sound, and I voted in favor of not letting the governor have a $500 million slush fund,’” he said.
Pivoting to the fall elections, in which 91 out of 100 House seats are contested, Stumbo said Republicans would have to explain why they didn’t put more money into the education systems.
“They have to defend the governor’s budget now,” Stumbo said.
Bevin’s proposal, released in January, reduces state spending across the board by 9 percent for the next two years and 4.5 percent this year, with some exceptions.
Republicans objected to Democrats excluding Bevin’s proposal to divert $500 million from the Public Employee Health Insurance Fund to a dedicated pension “permanent fund.”
In their budget proposal, House Democrats instead put that money directly into the Kentucky Teacher Retirement Systems, which only has 42 percent of the funds it needs to make future payments.
Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, a Republican from Jamestown, said Bevin’s plan ensures stability into the future, but the House version does not.
“What we’re doing here is simply putting money as a lump sum into KTRS, and we’re not addressing in any way a long-term solution to funding of teachers’ retirement,” Hoover said.
Republican members of the House filed several amendments that would have restored provisions of Bevin’s proposed budget. Stumbo struck down all the Republican amendments, saying they violated House rules by “piggybacking,” or having similar language to Bevin’s original version of the bill.
Rep. Stan Lee, a Republican from Lexington, said the House budget contradicts the wishes of Kentuckians who voted Bevin into office in November.
“That’s the same message that won in virtually every single one of the 120 counties, that we had to do something different,” Lee said.
Rep. Rick Rand, a Democrat from Bedford and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said Bevin’s proposal for a “permanent fund” wasn’t realistic because there’s no way to guarantee the money would be used for the pension systems.
“This budget can’t commit a future General Assembly, but we have to do what we can do today to fund the [pensions], and that’s what this budget does,” Rand said.
On Wednesday morning, Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester, wouldn’t say what changes he hoped his chamber would make to the budget.
“There may be things in there that we do not like, there may be things we agree with,” Stivers said. “It’s really late, and we’re going to have to do a lot of work.”
Lawmakers have until April 13 to approve a final version of a budget.