Approving a fiscally responsible budget

Chris Harris

By State Representative

Chris Harris

This week in Frankfort, House members accomplished our chief responsibility by approving a fiscally responsible budget plan that invests heavily in education, fully funds pensions for retired teachers and state employees, creates the largest “rainy day fund” in the Commonwealth’s history, and has less debt than Gov. Bevin’s budget proposal.

From preschool to college, we restored dramatic cuts called for in the governor’s budget by including nearly $90 million for valuable K-12 public education programs like Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, textbooks, extended school services, professional development, and dropout prevention. We also restored $215 million for higher education, eliminating the administration’s call to cut Kentucky’s already-strapped colleges and universities by 4.5 percent in this fiscal year and nine percent in each of the next two fiscal years. Our students simply can’t handle any future tuition increases.

The House budget plan also makes good on our commitment to retired teachers and state employees by including more than $1 billion in new money – with no bonding — for the Kentucky Teachers and Retirement System (KTRS), and nearly $90 million extra over the biennium for the Kentucky Employees Retirement System (KERS). For retirees, this fully funds the ARC, or “actuarially recommended contribution,” for KTRS and adds ARC-Plus funds for KERS. (In comparison, Gov. Bevin’s budget funded only two-thirds of the ARC.)

The House’s budget plan has a debt ratio of 5.82 percent compared to the governor’s proposed 5.88 percent – and creates the state’s largest-ever budget trust reserve by putting aside $283 million as compared to the fund’s current $209 million.

The House plan also includes $33 million over the next two years for our exciting new Kentucky “Work Ready” scholarship program that would help up to 3,200 graduating high school seniors attend a state community and technical college this fall without owing any tuition. The House budget also transfers $57 million to the need-based College Access Program and Kentucky Tuition grant, keeping true to our commitment to fund these scholarships out of lottery proceeds.

Particularly important to Pike and Martin counties, our plan also begins funding a four-year transition of all coal severance tax dollars to the counties in Eastern and Western Kentucky that generate them. Currently, these funds are split between the coal counties and the General Fund. With the sharp decline in coal production in recent years, our coal counties have suffered great economic setbacks, and I believe the state should provide assistance to help financially stabilize these local governments and diversify their economies. As the primary sponsor of House bill 266, I am proud to have pushed for this transition.

Volunteer fire departments also get a boost in the House plan, with an increase from $8,250 to $11,000 in the annual allotment provided by the Commission on Fire Protection Personnel Standards and Education to qualifying departments.

After a lengthy discussion Wednesday on the House floor, I was proud to join the 53 members of the majority party in voting in support of the House budget plan. The Commonwealth is experiencing growth once again after many years of economic hardship, with more than $908 million in new state revenue expected between now and the end of fiscal year 2018. During the years of the recession, the Commonwealth wisely chose to cut back, often painfully so, but still managed to make progress in education, health care and economic development. This budget plan puts us back on track by investing in people and programs that will help us develop the skilled workforce that businesses need to grow and expand on both the state and local level.

The budget now goes to the Senate, where our colleagues there are likely to put their own touches on the plan before bringing it to a full vote. After that, leaders in both chambers will appoint legislators to meet in a conference committee to work out differences in the plans and reach a final compromise. From there, it’s on to Gov. Bevin, who can sign the budget, veto certain line items, or reject the document as a whole. In case of a full veto or any line item vetoes, the House and Senate can meet to consider overriding the governor’s actions.

Other budget highlights include:

•Funding salary increases for state police and adds vehicle enforcement officers to those receiving pay raises;

•Adding $1 million a year – bringing it up to $3 million annually – for the Kentucky Coal County College Completion Scholarship.

•Increasing preschool eligibility from 160 percent of the poverty level to 200 percent.

•Maintaining all of the slots the state funds to help train tomorrow’s veterinarians and optometrists.

•Exempting the Judicial Branch from current-year cuts, which would potentially force the courts to close for up to three weeks before the end of June.

•Reversing the cuts the governor proposed for the Registry of Election Finance and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

•Exempting budget cuts to the Ky. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Ky. Department of Military Affairs;

•Exempting budget cuts to Kentucky Educational Television; the Ky. Commission on Human Rights; the Ky. Commission on Women, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Ky. School for the Blind; the Ky. School for the Deaf; the Kentucky River Authority and the Bluegrass State Skills Corporation.

Also this week, we passed House Bill 290, a bill that would allow early voting across the Commonwealth. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Reggie Meeks of Louisville, would allow no-excuse, in-person voting at least 12 working days, including two Saturdays, before Election Day. Kentucky currently only allows voting before an election by absentee ballot with a qualified excuse. The legislation would make Kentucky the 38th state to allow early voting without any justification or excuse. The measure passed 57-37 and now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

We also passed House Bill 367, a bill that will exempt veteran-owned businesses from paying certain fees with the Secretary of State’s Office; House Joint Resolution 160 directing the Transportation Cabinet and the Personnel Cabinet to develop a plan to address pay equity issues within certain job classifications within the cabinet; and House Bill 563, a bill that would investigate the management and disposal of radioactive materials associated with out-of-state oil and gas operations. All these measures now move to the Senate.

With just nine legislative days remaining in this 2016 legislative session, I’ll be working long hours in the Capitol and the Annex as we make final adjustments to dozens of bills working their way through the process. I welcome your opinions and information and encourage you to contact me at [email protected] or by calling the Legislative Message Line at 1-800-372-7181. It’s an honor to represent the people of Pike and Martin counties in the 93rd House District and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Chris Harris Harris
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