With just less than a month left in the General Assembly, the House of Representatives expects to pass its version of the state budget this week, paving the way for Senate action, legislators said at the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce Legislative Forum Saturday morning at the Western Kentucky University-Owensboro campus.
State Rep. Tommy Thompson, a Philpot Democrat and House majority whip, said the governor’s budget was already lean when he presented it in January, and the House has focused on “trimming around the edges,” adding that there will be no new taxes. The House expects to vote on it Wednesday.
“Our top priority now is passing a budget,” Thompson said. “There’s not a lot of additional revenue we can find ... and there aren’t any new programs that can generate much money.
“We will probably have a few different spending priorities than the governor. We’ll try to put a little more money into some programs for the aging, but there’s not much money to move around.”
Thompson said most agencies will take about an 8.4 percent cut, although higher education is expected to take a 6.4 percent hit. Other House priorities include K-12 education, public protection and human services.
“A lot of other programs will be significantly reduced as we act judiciously and pass a balanced budget,” he said.
Thompson said road spending has been a “bright spot” for Daviess County, which includes about $90 million by work on U.S. 60, formally known as the bypass, and Southtown Boulevard.
“We’ve got some money in there to move around and widen (Kentucky) 54 and work on the roundabout at the (Kentucky) 81 and 56 intersection,” he said. “There will also be some work by Hillcrest Golf Course at the busy Old Hartford Road and Fairview Drive intersection.”
Thompson said state revenues are improving from a year ago, but Kentucky still has “a long way to go to catch up.”
“January’s revenues were about 10 percent higher than last January, but last year’s revenue just equaled what it was in 2008,” he said.”But at least it’s going in the right direction.”
State Sen. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro Republican, said he hopes Senate Bill 1, which he sponsored, will be heard in the House. The bill, which overwhelmingly passed in the Senate, would set a debt ceiling at 6 percent as it relates to general fund revenues.
“Included in the governor’s version of the budget is $450 (million) to $500 million in new debt and that puts our ratio of general fund supported debt at 6.4 percent,” he said. “You have to be careful about debt you incur, because it’s an inflexible entity. Once you’ve committed to it, you’re committed to it for at least 20 years.
“What a debt ceiling does is put programs over pork. This would allow us to fund services and programs that are important to us.”
State Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat, said he was against wasteful spending but feels the state should still make good investments that can grow the economy.
A debt ceiling “sounds good so that (debt) doesn’t hamstring us, but not making good investments can hamstring us as well,” he said.
Thompson said a House bill dealing with synthetic drugs such as K2 would be “more comprehensive” so that manufacturers couldn’t skirt the law by slightly altering the substance’s chemical content. Penalties would include property seizure and imposing heavier fines, among other things.
Gooch, however, wanted to be careful that honest store owners wouldn’t be unduly penalized for selling something they didn’t know was used for unintended purposes.
“I don’t have a problem with penalizing people selling stuff that they know is illegal,” he said. “But when I was growing up, people would buy glue and sniff it, so how can you go after a store owner for selling something that’s meant for one thing, but used for something different?”
Thompson said the House has a couple of bills in the works dealing with the pseudoephedrine issue, a major ingredient in methamphetamine production. The Senate passed a bill Friday that allows people to purchase 7.2 grams of the drug monthly without a prescription. The bill also set an annual limit of 24 grams that can be purchased after a prescription.
Thompson called the Senate’s bill a kind of compromise of the House bills.
Bowen said the Senate passed a couple of education bills that he felt were important, one that allows for a local option so that school districts can raise the high school graduation age to 18, if they so desire, and another that changes the age (by two months) for children entering kindergarten and first grade. Children must be 5 years old by Aug. 1 to enter kindergarten, and 6 by Aug. 1 to enter first grade. Currently, Oct. 1 is the cutoff.
Rep. Jim Glenn, an Owensboro Democrat, said he hopes KET will get increased funding because it’s the “only statewide media source,” adding that Louisville and Lexington newspapers only concentrate on certain areas of the state.
Glenn also said the state will have to decide what kind of spending model it’s going to use in a changing global economy. One theory gaining popularity is only spending what one “has in his pocket,” while the other is continuing what’s been happening “for 70 years, that is, if business doesn’t have enough money, government jumps in and tries to keep the economy running,” Glenn said.
“I’m not saying one or the other is right, but we’re running out of money,” he said.
The legislators also appeared at a forum at the Green River Area Development District on Saturday.