CORBIN — By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — We always knew it would come to this — a few key legislators from both chambers and parties sitting around a table arguing about a $20 billion, two-year budget with time ticking away in the 2014 General Assembly.
Perhaps by the time you read this, your favorite college basketball team will be closer to the Final Four and the commonwealth will have a budget agreement. But the former is more likely than the latter.
Republicans control the Senate and Democrats the House, but Republicans believe by January they’ll control both. Democrats are determined to prevent that, and both sides just want to get a budget they can campaign on and get out of town to prepare for the November elections. But there are a few serious differences which make that difficult.
As of Friday morning, the budget conference negotiations were open to reporters and KET cameras. There’s debate about whether that’s beneficial. Some of us believe the public’s business ought always to be conducted in public; others believe the press and cameras encourage posturing and discourage hard bargaining and horse-trading necessary to produce a budget.
Some differences are philosophical, some political. Some are difficult to understand. For instance, how can coal-field legislators (from both parties) who make impassioned speeches about the dangers and sacrifices of brave coal miners want to cut safety inspections at coal mines? Is it possible these defenders of the coal miner really care more about the fortunes (and campaign contributions) of coal magnates?
Why is it that lawmakers who represent some of the poorest counties and school districts in the country challenge every dollar spent on education? Meanwhile, there’s money for corporate incentives, projects back home and a determination to avoid even a single new dollar in taxes — especially in an election year.
That’s one of the stumbling blocks. Democrats want to lock in gas taxes at the higher December rates before they fall on April 1. Republicans say it’s a tax increase, but Democrats say it provides $100 million for the road fund. County officials from both parties want the increase because 40 percent of the proceeds go back to local governments. Asphalt means votes for county officials. They face an election this year, too.
Philosophically, the 20 lawmakers around the big table in Room 129 of the Capitol Annex illustrate the divide in the larger body politic. One begins with the idea that government should do all it can to help those who need it while the other says it wants to help the “genuinely deserving” but believes government is part of the problem and must first protect the interests of taxpayers and business.
The table illustrates the relative political power of those seated around it. At its head sit the two budget chairmen, separated by a legislative budget analyst. Next to the chairs sit the Speaker on one side and the Senate President on the other. The other leaders of the majority party in each chamber come next.
At the other end sit (mostly silently) minority party leaders — Senate Democrats and House Republicans. It’s my observation that some of the wiser, more reasonable personalities in the General Assembly sit at that end of the table.
But in the end, only about 10 — those at the head of the table — 10 out of 138 lawmakers will determine the commonwealth’s future for the next two years. That’s roughly the same number of blue and red clad athletes who determine which of you are ecstatic and which despondent today.
I’m guessing most of you worried a lot more about basketball than the budget this weekend.
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.