Politics

First it was the governor, then it was the House, and now it’s the Senate’s turn to weigh in on how to spend Kentucky’s money over the next two years.

Senate President Robert Stivers said he wants his chamber to vote on a budget Tuesday or Wednesday. That would give leaders from both chambers about a week to hammer out a final version of the bill before they’re scheduled to deliver the document to Gov. Matt Bevin on March 30.

A week isn’t much time to negotiate a final budget, which has to be approved by April 13 or Bevin would have to call a special legislative session. Each legislative day costs Kentucky taxpayers about $70,000.

Last week, House Democrats approved a budget proposal similar to Bevin’s, although it restored cuts the governor proposed to higher education and would immediately fund a gap in teacher pensions.

There have been few hints about what the Senate budget could look like. Leaders of the Republican-led chamber appear to be on board with Bevin’s proposals.

Last week, Senate President Robert Stivers wouldn’t say what changes he hoped his chamber would make to the Republican governor’s proposal.

“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.”

But on Friday, Stivers gave a lengthy speech demanding House Democrats to explain why University of Louisville Hospital needs $10 million to cover indigent care over the biennium. Stivers said the appropriation was proof the Affordable Care Act doesn’t work.

“Is it working?” he said rhetorically. “If it is, then there’s no need for that appropriation.”

There are major differences between the Democratic-led House’s version of the budget and Bevin’s, but the differences could have been more stark.

House budget writers left in most of Bevin’s nearly across-the-board spending cuts but restored about $215 million in cuts the governor proposed to the state’s higher education institutions.

Also, the House radically changed Bevin’s fix for the pension systems — taking money he set aside for future payments and putting it directly into the teacher retirement system, which only has about 42 percent of the money it needs to make future payments.

The moves aren’t without a political angle. House Democrats have only a six-seat majority in the chamber — the last in the South still controlled by Democrats. And although they were able to hold off the GOP wave sweeping across Kentucky in recent special elections, 91 out of 100 seats are in contention in November.

The House Democrats’ budget gives them an opportunity to contrast support for higher education with Republicans’ planned cuts. And it takes off the table a chief criticism of Democrats’ previous attempts to fix the state’s beleaguered pensions: their idea to borrow billions in funds to cover current gaps.

Every House Democrat supported the budget proposal, while all 47 Republicans in the chamber abstained from voting.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives.