House budget plan seeks new roles for Ag Dept.


Associated Press

Posted on March 11, 2014 at 11:01 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer's agency would be assigned new oversight duties that include diabetes education and energy efficiency as part of a proposed House budget outlined Monday.

Comer, a likely Republican candidate for governor next year, took issue with the proposals affecting the Agriculture Department.

His top aide worried that the recommendations could amount to "unfunded mandates," saying the department hasn't been informed about the sources of funding for those programs. The proposals were drafted by a House budget subcommittee led by Democrats.

"It appears we are being treated differently than other constitutional officers, and that was about as predictable as death and taxes," Comer said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo insisted Comer wasn't being singled out and said the tight state budget made the proposal necessary.

"You're going to see that throughout the budget," said Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg. "It wasn't just Jamie. There will be other places where agencies will be directed to fund certain programs."

In all, the Agriculture Department would assume about $4 million in new funding responsibilities over two years for the diabetes- and energy-related programs and two other initiatives. The House Appropriations and Revenue Committee plans to vote on the overall state budget plan Tuesday.

The full House is expected to vote on its budget plan this week. The work will then shift to the Republican-led state Senate.

One proposal pending before the House budget panel and affecting the Agriculture Department would authorize $500,000 in the coming fiscal year to establish a diabetes education program for public school students and personnel.

Another recommendation would authorize $750,000 in each of the next two fiscal years to start an Appalachian Renewable Energy Efficiency Program.

The proposal also targets funding for county fair grants and to support the Farms to Food Banks program.

Top House Democrats said Comer's agency could absorb the added responsibilities.

"We felt that he had sufficient carry-forward in a couple of his accounts that we added a couple of programs and asked him to fund," said House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Rick Rand.

Rand, D-Bedford, said the proposal gives Comer plenty of flexibility in dealing with his budget.

Democratic Rep. John Will Stacy said the House budget writers made sure the recommendations would not impede the department's ability to help farmers. He said they reached out to the department but suggested the department wasn't responsive.

"It's been a little bit difficult in getting responses from the department," he said.

Comer's chief of staff, Holly Harris VonLuehrte, said that wasn't the case.

"I can assure you, no one has contacted me, no one has emailed me, no one has called me," she said. "I'm readily available on social media. I've never spoken with Rep. Stacy or anybody else in the House. I think it would be common practice to contact the chief of staff. And I certainly had no communication."

She added, "Given the acidic environment in Frankfort, it's not surprising there would be limited communication."