Budget tops issues awaiting Ky. lawmakers


Associated Press

Posted on January 8, 2014 at 7:06 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers on Tuesday began a legislative session that will be dominated by work on a new state budget, though efforts to legalize casinos and revamp the tax code will headline other issues sure to surface.

The House and Senate convened at midday, starting a session that will stretch into mid-April.

Gov. Steve Beshear presented his top priorities in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech Tuesday night, capping the opening day of the 60-working-day session.

He urged lawmakers to "ignore the pull of partisanship" and work together to make it a productive session. The General Assembly is divided along party lines, with Republicans in charge of the Senate and Democrats in control of the House.

"We must continue to focus our attention not on the next headline or next election, but on a collective vision of a stronger Kentucky," the Democratic governor said in his speech.

Beshear will present his proposed budget to the General Assembly later this month, representing a starting point for lawmakers in crafting a new budget for the two-year period beginning July 1.

The state's recovery from recession will mean more tax revenue flowing into Kentucky's General Fund, but obligations to shore up the government pension system will consume much of the additional money projected. The state's top economists predict General Fund revenue will grow by nearly $500 million over the two years.

Education funding looms as a key issue in the budget debate.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has warned that school districts would have to cut teachers and teaching assistants if lawmakers fail to restore recessionary school funding cuts. The Department of Education has asked lawmakers for an additional $336 million to restore funding to pre-recession levels.

Beshear has said he's willing to cut state spending elsewhere to free up more money for schools.

Other issues expected to surface during the legislative session include whether to change the state's eminent domain law, how to curtail heroin addiction and how to ease financial distress in the eastern Kentucky coalfields.

Leaders in the Democratic-led House and Republican-controlled Senate set out vastly different priorities.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said one of his priorities is raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over three years. He said the current minimum wage doesn't provide a living wage.

"You're going to hear us talk about issues that deal with real-life working Kentucky families and trying to make their lives easier and better," he said of House Democrats.

One political undercurrent to the session will be a strong push by Republicans seeking to win control of the House in this year's election. Republicans are in firm control of the Senate.

Senate President Robert Stivers said one of his top goals is to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to restrict the governor's power to issue administrative regulations.

The proposal, if it clears the legislature and is approved by the voters, would enable lawmakers to block an executive branch regulation from taking effect by declaring it deficient.

"A regulation implements the policy enacted by the legislature," said Stivers, R-Manchester. "Currently, the legislature has no impact on the viability of the regulation because the governor can unilaterally decide to implement a regulation, even if it exceeds the statutory authority of the executive branch."