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Legislative sessions are much like snowflakes. They appear the same from a distance, but look closely and you’ll see each has a pattern all its own.
Right now, the 2010 Regular Session that began in Frankfort Tuesday looks to the casual observer like most legislative sessions held in even-numbered years. It will last 60 legislative days. Its main purpose is to pass a state budget before a new two-year budget cycle begins in July. And legislative procedure will be the same, too.
What’s different this session is the challenge lawmakers face to pass a balanced budget in spite of a state budget shortfall of nearly $1.5 billion in the General Fund and areas like Medicaid for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. The shortfall is one of many the Commonwealth has faced since 2007, and the second consecutive shortfall of nearly $1 billion or more in the past year. It comes on the heels of a $100-million shortfall for the remainder of this fiscal year that the governor has plugged with 3-percent spending cuts, fund transfers, and around $25 million of the $250-$300 million in federal stimulus dollars available to the state next fiscal year.
Each round of shortfall-and-cuts has been painful, requiring sacrifices from most state agencies. Very few areas—including base public school funding known as SEEK, Medicaid, higher education, certain public safety and mental health services—have escaped cuts. Public schools will have their non-SEEK funds cut by 3 percent this fiscal year under the latest reduction, but the cuts will be offset by 2009 legislation that ensures excess SEEK funds will be returned to school districts.
We’re pleased that our school districts will get some relief under the new SEEK offset. But we are ever mindful that most state programs have not been so lucky. Many, many agencies have lost more than one-fifth of their revenue since budget reductions became a yearly or twice-yearly ritual recently.
Now, as lawmakers struggle to find out how we can stop the state’s financial bleeding and avoid more drastic future cuts, perennial session issues like tax reform and expanded gambling at racetracks have been resurrected as mostly long-term proposals to stitch our budget wounds.
Among the tax reform proposals that lawmakers may consider at some point are provisions that would modernize the state tax system by reducing the tax burden on lower- and middle-income taxpayers and shifting that burden to higher brackets. Proposals to create an income-tax credit for the state’s working poor, eliminate state income taxes and remove certain sales-tax exemptions have been floated for weeks if not years, although there is no bipartisan agreement on what, if any, tax changes should be made. In fact, the governor and key legislators have ruled out broad-based tax increases this recession year.
Expanded gaming, like tax reform, is not a new issue. Supporters of expanded gaming—which would essentially allow casino-style gambling via video slot machines at racetracks in Kentucky—say it could potentially bring more that $400 million a year into the State Treasury. But those who have filed bills to make that a reality in Kentucky propose two very different avenues for getting slot machines to the tracks.
Some lawmakers say they support allowing video slot machines at Kentucky racetracks upon simple enactment of legislation passed by the General Assembly. No constitutional amendment approved by a majority of the state’s voters or subsequent local-option elections would be required under that proposal. But legislation requiring such voter approval has been introduced in the Senate, which has been historically unfriendly to expanded gaming.
Work on all these proposals, from the budget to gaming, will begin in legislative committees in coming days and weeks. Some committees began holding hearings this week, including the House Judiciary Committee, which reviewed and passed House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s House Bill 1. Known as Amanda’s Bill in memory of domestic violence victim Amanda Ross who was murdered in Lexington last fall, HB 1 would allow Kentucky courts to use GPS monitoring in some domestic violence cases and for pretrial release. HB 1 now goes to the full House for its consideration.
All in all, it is difficult to predict what will happen this session. Much needs to be done in the areas of education, workforce development, public safety, public health—the list goes on and on. But the revenue shortfall will likely prevent many less-pressing needs from being met. The best we as lawmakers can do this budget session is work together to provide the best quality and quantity of services we can for the common good. If we resolve to do that, our state will be better off over the next two years than we ever thought possible.
You can stay informed of action on bills this session by checking our website, www.lrc.ky.gov, or by calling the LRC toll-free Bill Status Line at 866-840-2835. To find out when a committee meeting is scheduled, check the website or call the LRC toll-free Meeting Information Line at 800-633-9650.
If you would like to share your comments or concerns with me or another legislator about a particular bill under consideration this session, please feel free to call the Legislative Message Line at 800-372-7181. You can also write to any legislator by sending a letter with your lawmaker’s name on it to: Legislative Offices, 701 Capitol Ave., Frankfort, KY 40601.
Kent Stevens represents the 55th district in the Kentucky House of Representatives.