When they return to town Tuesday, lawmakers will face two grim forecasts: bitterly cold temperatures and an equally frosty fiscal outlook.
The winter freeze will pass before the General Assembly adjourns in mid-April but the budget chill will be felt far longer. Lawmakers welcomed news that revenues will increase by $246 million in the first year and about $252 million in the second. But that’s far short of the $1.6 billion that has been cut out of the budget in the past five years and won’t even cover the cost of replacing one-time money in the current budget, normal cost increases, and funding requirements of pension reform.
Gov. Steve Beshear wants to restore some of the cuts to education but says he won’t propose a budget based on revenues from either tax reform or expanded gambling. That means the only way to increase education funding is to cut other programs that are already suffering.
He also said he hasn’t given up on tax reform or gambling. But lawmakers aren’t likely to make significant tax changes in an election year and while the odds seem better for gambling, history suggests passage won’t be easy.
So how will Beshear and lawmakers come up with $336 million for education over two years and another $100 to $120 million for the pension system? The Kentucky Teachers Retirement Fund needs $400 million and higher education is looking for more money. Medicaid costs continue to grow even while the federal government pays for its expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Republican Sen. Dan Seum and Democratic Rep. Larry Clark are offering proposals for a constitutional referendum on gambling. Naturally there are rumors of pre-arranged deals to ensure passage. There’s a new theory that Republicans may support an amendment believing it will attract conservative opponents in the November elections who will vote Republican and help ensure a GOP takeover of the House.
It won’t all be about the budget. Expect to see proposals limiting the use of eminent domain for a proposed natural gas pipeline through the state. Cities and counties want legislation allowing them to seek voter approval for local sales taxes tied to specific, time-limited projects. That measure will face the same political obstacles as tax reform in an election year.
There seems to be some momentum to restore voting rights for non-violent offenders who serve out their sentences. But Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, wants to link that to a requirement voters provide photo identification at the polls that could doom both proposals. Thayer will likely come back with legislation to require special taxing districts to get approval from fiscal courts for their tax rates that could threaten some public libraries.
There will be legislation to crack down on heroin trafficking while others push for legalizing medical marijuana. Hemp supporters want changes to a law passed last year to allow its cultivation although confusion still remains about federal law that bans its cultivation.
Supporters will try again to extend legal protection for domestic violence to dating partners and there will be another push for a statewide smoking ban. Beshear, House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate President Robert Stivers have pledged to look for ways to help eastern Kentucky deal with the decline in the coal economy and four-lane the Mountain Parkway to Prestonsburg. Others want to return more severance taxes to coal producing counties. Republicans will again offer abortion and right-to-work bills.
That’s just a partial list. My only prediction is that the cold weather will pass long before lawmakers deal in a serious way with Kentucky’s really serious problems.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.