The Commonwealth’s two-year budget plan continued to dominate much of the Senate’s attention this week.

 In many ways, this is the most important work of any even-year 60-day legislative session. It’s certainly the most time-consuming. Arriving at a two-year spending plan the Senate, House and governor can all sign off on is never a simple task. But this year -- after five years of an ailing economy and the end of the federal stimulus money we used to patch together a balanced budget during the worst recession in memory -- it seems even more daunting. 

There is some good news out there. State revenues are finally rebounding from the scary economic downturn that began in 2007. That’s welcome news, yes, but it still only puts us back at pre-recession revenue levels. And in those intervening years, just as your household expenses have increased, so has the cost of programs and services funded by the state. 

We are left with a shortfall of more than $700 million and the stark reality that agencies and programs having already endured 10 rounds of cuts totaling more than a quarter of their initial 2007 budgets face even more cuts in the next budget cycle. Most, with the exception of a few critical areas such as Medicaid, and base funding for public schools, would endure another 8.4 percent in cuts over the next two years.   

We protected education as best we could. Under the latest version of the plan, our public universities and Education Cabinet were spared the full impact of the 8.4 percent cut.  The Senate added provisions to provide relief for school districts impacted by the recent tornadoes including additional disaster days, and a special process to calculate SEEK funding for 2012-2013. 

Legislative and judicial branches of government, not included in the $19.5 billion executive branch budget, will face the full 8.4 percent cut, as well. 

State employees and retirees in all three branches of government will not receive salary or cost of living increases. 

More money was eked out in a few essential areas, including social services, in response to frontline workers’ overwhelming caseloads. We also provided an additional funding for transitional living for developmentally disabled Kentuckians. Even in the dire situation we’re in, we must ensure that our most vulnerable citizens are protected. 

While our bleak financial situation squelches any substantial hope that major funding changes will occur in the budget plan, it is important to keep in mind that the details are not yet final.  They won’t be until a conference committee comprised of members of both chambers iron out the differences in each of their plans. 

The most glaring difference in the Senate’s plan is the amount of debt.  I have always believed that it is impossible for the state to borrow its way to prosperity. That belief only strengthened through the Great Recession. Our plan increases the Budget Reserve Trust, what most folks call the ‘rainy day fund,’ to nearly $129 million by the end of the next biennium.  

We also authorized only $391.3 million in bonded indebtedness, which would bring our debt ratio to 6.58%.  This is $161.2 million less than the House approved and a full $577.5 million less than the governor proposed. 

We are hopeful the final version of the budget will reflect a responsible level of debt and carry us through the next two years, to a better economy where Kentuckians are back at work and businesses big and small are thriving. Only then will we see the increased revenues that will obviate the need for ‘slash-and-burn’ budgets. 

We also considered other important legislation this week, as well. 

With a continued dedication to the education of Kentuckians, we sent Senate Bill 11 (on a 23-15 vote) to the House for its consideration. The bill would give teachers of advanced placement (AP) math and science courses performance incentives of up to $7,500 each school year based on their students’ test scores. Teachers of lower-level math and science classes could earn up to $5,000 depending on the tests scores of their kids when they go on to the AP courses.  

Supporters of the measure hope it will encourage good educators to enter or remain in the important math and science fields currently experiencing teacher shortages. However, some opponents say teachers of all subjects should be eligible for performance-based incentives. 

We unanimously passed House Bill 390 Wednesday, in an effort to decrease the theft of items containing copper or other valuable metals. The measure forbids cash payments by metal recyclers for items – too often stolen -- such as catalytic converters and copper parts from air conditioning units.  It requires payment to be made in the form of a mailed check the day following the purchase. 

Under the provisions of the bill, secondary metal recyclers would also have to register with the state and undergo a background check. The bill also establishes misdemeanor and felony crimes relating to the destruction of property for the intent of stealing valuable metals. We hope this will help prevent homeowners, churches, builders, and others from dealing with vandalized and damaged property stripped by thieves of valuable metals, a growing problem that has already plagued many Kentuckians. 

That bill is now being sent back to the House for their consideration of some technical changes we made. 

With only six more working days remaining, the session is quickly winding down.  There is still time, though, for important measures – such as those addressing substance-abuse issues – to become law. I encourage you to take this opportunity to have your voice heard in this legislative session. 

Note:  Senator Joe Bowen (R-Owensboro) serves on the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, the Agriculture Committee, the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, the Health and Welfare Committee, Veterans, Military Affairs, & Public Protection Committee, and chairs the Administrative Regulations Committee.  He represents the 8th District including Daviess and McLean counties.

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