House passes two-year Kentucky budget, including $1.7 billion in one-time spending

Published 10:02 am Friday, February 2, 2024

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By Liam Niemeyer

Kentucky Lantern

After hours of questioning and much criticism from Democrats, the GOP-dominated Kentucky House of Representatives on Thursday approved a $129.6 billion two-year state spending plan.

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The House also approved more than $1.7 billion in one-time spending from the state’s record-high “rainy day” fund which will pay down pension liabilities and fund infrastructure, in addition to adopting budgets for the judicial and legislative branches.  

The minority of Democrats praised House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chair Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, for his work on House Bill 6, the executive branch budget, which one Democrat called a “herculean task.” 

But Democrats mostly criticized — prompting Petrie to push back against their assertions that the budget allocates too little for school employee raises, state retirees, affordable housing and water infrastructure.

After HB 6 passed 77-19 on a largely party line vote, Rep. Kevin Bratcher, R-Louisville, thanked the body for passing a “responsible budget.” 

“Our friends on the other side that have been talking all day have no idea of how to operate a responsible budget,” Bratcher said. “They just say, ‘Spend, spend, spend, spend, spend.’ And that’s dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.” 

“Responsible government means that you have to prepare for the bad news, not to spend it off — what feels good today and who cares about tomorrow,” Bratcher said. 

Minority Floor Leader Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said he feared the funding allocated for education, and more specifically teacher raises, in HB 6 isn’t enough to keep up with other states, calling on the body to invest more from the state’s record balance in its “rainy day” fund

“This budget ultimately becomes our budget — not red or blue, not urban or rural. It’s our guiding document that educates our kids. keeps us safe, promotes our most vulnerable, paves our roads and does 1,000 other things,” Graham said. “When again will we have this opportunity to make some bold decisions and to invest in the future of our commonwealth?”

Responding to Democratic education funding critiques, Petrie said the budget increases monies to school districts through a statewide funding formula, SEEK, with encouragement to give teachers and staff raises; funds local school resource officers, which schools are required to have; and fully funds school transportation costs.

Petrie criticized as flawed the SEEK formula, which largely governs distribution of school funding to districts. “You can’t push enough money through SEEK at this point in that formula to make sure everybody’s getting something. It’s just almost impossible,” Petrie said. 

Rep. Chad Aull, D-Lexington, pointed out that HB 6 would allow a “takeover” of local boards of education if they don’t make progress in retaining teachers and employees. Aull said the provision punishes school districts that are already trying their best to keep teachers. 

The Kentucky School Boards Association has expressed concerns about the provision, and a survey of school superintendents has previously said HB 6 fell short of providing the needed investment for competitive teacher salaries. 

Petrie, talking about the “takeover” provision, said it’s “simply restating the law” with expectations for school districts. 

“If you don’t take care of your school system, you got two options: a state takeover or consolidate,” Petrie said. “It might be time that we get back to, I don’t know — can we make sure the kids can read at grade level when they graduate?” 

According to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, the decline in inflation-adjusted funding for SEEK since the Great Recession has exacerbated the funding gap between the state’s wealthiest and poorest school districts. 

Jason Bailey, the executive director for the think tank, in a statement said the House budget was a “missed opportunity” with “inadequate resources” for a number of issues.

“We hope the Senate will do much more to take advantage of this moment by putting forward a budget that stems the growing teacher shortage, prevents more damage to a fragile child care sector, addresses the mounting housing and clean water crisis, and prioritizes using ample available dollars to reinvest in the public services all Kentucky families and communities need to thrive,” Bailey said. 

Bailey said “sitting on this money” only incentivizes lawmakers’ desire for meeting fiscal requirements to further cut the state’s income tax, something that Petrie has denied the budget is geared for. 

House Democrats unsuccessfully tried to add several floor amendments to HB 6 and another budget bill, House Bill 1, which provides more than $1.7 billion in one-time spending from the state’s “rainy day” fund.  

House Bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars to pay down pension liabilities; $15 million for riverport infrastructure; $150 million for water and wastewater infrastructure grants.

House rules require floor amendments be filed 24 hours before a bill is considered on the House floor. Because a substitute budget bill was introduced in committee on Wednesday, it was impossible for Democrats to meet the 24-hour requirement for floor amendments. 

HB 6 passed the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Wednesday afternoon in a special-called meeting with the substituted budget bills, and Rep. Rachel Roberts, D-Newport, unsuccessfully tried to ask for more time ahead of that meeting to file floor amendments that could be eligible. 

On Thursday, Republicans voted down motions from Democrats to suspend the rules and consider the floor amendments. Those amendments ranged from providing an 11% across-board-raise for all school employees, a priority for Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, to providing more funding for water and wastewater infrastructure. 

Roberts said her primary objection to the budget bills was “the process that got us here with fast tracking the top priority of this body.”

“Every one here represents around 45,000 Kentuckians, and we should all have input on their path up to, and including, today on the House floor. And that input on a day such as this comes from amendments,” Roberts said.