Kentucky Politics

State workers would get raises, schools would get a little more funding and money would be set aside to attract and retain health workers under a budget proposal filed by House Republicans on Friday.

The $13.9 billion spending plan is surprising in a few ways—it’s almost $2 billion per year more than the current budget. Many of the priorities align with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s proposals, like raises for state workers. And the plan was released early, with no warning — pre-empting the governor’s traditional budget address.

Beshear is still scheduled to propose a new two-year budget during a televised address on Jan. 13, but Republican leaders of the House of Representatives unveiled their plan about a week early.

House Appropriations and Revenue Chair Jason Petrie, a Republican from Elkton, issued a statement saying Republican budget writers made their decisions based on legislative meetings held over the summer and fall.

“Our budget review subcommittees have been meeting since late spring to identify not only our priorities but also the realities our state faces. Ultimately, these bills provide a solid, responsible approach consistent with our state’s needs and obligations and our philosophy that we must carefully consider every allocation we make,” Petrie wrote.

The plan comes as Kentucky is experiencing a few financial windfalls. The state had a $1.1 billion budget surplus last year, which was deposited into the Rainy Day Fund. It could have another budget surplus in the current fiscal year ending in July, and the state is expecting to receive billions more in federal coronavirus relief and infrastructure money.

But Republicans have tempered expectations about the state’s financial situation. Earlier this week, Republican House Speaker David Osborne said that positive tax revenues don’t necessarily mean a healthy economy.

“When you understand that Kentucky ranks 48th in the country in workforce participation, over 90,000 unfilled jobs in Kentucky, there are huge holes in our economy that have got to be addressed before we truly have an economy that’s clicking on all cylinders,” Osborne said.

Osborne reiterated the point in a statement on Friday, saying the state economy is still “in a precarious position.

“I know there are those calling for us to spend federal dollars as fast as we receive them, but you can’t spend the same dollar twice — we have to get it right the first time,” Osborne said.

Several initiatives in the House Republican budget are similar to Beshear’s priorities, including a 6% raise for state workers, $15,000 per year raises for State Police, raises for social workers, continued funding for full-day kindergarten and $20 million for a “health care workforce initiative.”

The plan also adds $100 per pupil each year to the SEEK education funding formula, currently $4,000 per pupil; sets aside $350 million per year for facility improvements at state universities; fully funds the pension systems; and sets aside $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for water and wastewater projects.

House Republicans would also set aside $10 million for a “population-based grant pool” that would allow legislators to award grants to local governments, educational units and quasi-governmental agencies.

Gov. Beshear’s communications director, Crystal Staley, issued a statement saying the early budget announcement was concerning, and violates “long-standing practice and state law.”

“Neither the Executive Branch nor the Governor were alerted or consulted. Of more concern is that the House’s budget fails to make the game-changing investments that Kentuckians will see in the Governor’s recommended budget. For example, the Governor’s budget will fund universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds,” Staley wrote.

House Democrats issued a statement calling the move “beyond petty.”

“Doing this before Gov. Beshear presents his proposal next week violates long-standing traditions and the spirit of budget law itself and is the most glaring example yet of the contempt they have for him and the public,” Democratic leaders wrote.  “We may as well wrap up the 2022 legislative session now, because all of the major decisions apparently have been made.”  

The budget announcement comes as Republican leaders are hurrying redistricting plans through the legislature, and will likely pass a final plan during an unusual Saturday lawmaking session.

Republican leaders said they would discuss the budget plan after the legislature adjourns on Saturday.

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