House budget committee Chair Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, left, and House Majority Floor Leader Steven Rudy, R-Paducah, look over budget proposals. (LRC Public Information)
FRANKFORT — Kentucky House Republicans would fully fund school transportation in a state budget proposal that advanced from committee Wednesday.
The House Appropriations and Revenue Committee in a special-called meeting approved bills funding all three branches of government, making one-time appropriations from the state’s “rainy day” fund and releasing tens of millions of dollars in funding to make improvements to state parks.
The budget bills can now be voted on by the full House. House Speaker David Osborne has said he wants the House to approve its two-year budget plan by the end of the week.
The latest version of House Bill 6, which funds the executive branch, became available only a few hours before it was considered in committee. The committee substitute bill was not available online for the public to view until Wednesday evening. Open government advocates have complained committee substitutes frequently deprive the public of time to review changes in bills.
The new versions of the budget bills largely are the same as the bills that were filed earlier in January, but include a key addition — fully funded school transportation for the first time in decades.
Democrats on Wednesday decried what they said was a lack of time and notice to review the revised budget bills ahead of the committee meeting. Democrats also unsuccessfully tried Wednesday to provide time for House lawmakers to file floor amendments to the changed budget bills ahead of what they say is a potential vote on Thursday.
Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, the chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said the changes in the budget bills were “not that momentous” and that the bills had been available for review since Jan. 16 when they were filed.
“It’s just a large bill as it always is,” Petrie said. “We have moved this one slower and received more input, even after it was filed, than normal.”
Key changes in the executive branch budget bill
The $129.6 billion House GOP budget proposal, specifically HB 6, would fully fund school transportation for the first time in decades.
Kentucky law requires full funding of school transportation by the state, but the legislature in past budgets has suspended the requirement and not fully funded busing and other transportation costs for school districts since 2004, according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
Petrie told reporters fully funding transportation costs allows for more “real money” to reach school districts. Full funding would be achieved in the second year of the two-year budget.
“These are actual costs that are incurred, that they’re incurring,” Petrie said.
The original version of the House GOP budget bill would have covered 90% of those costs for schools over the two-year budget. The governor’s budget proposal covers the entirety of transportation costs.
Minority Caucus Chair Cherlynn Stevenson, D-Lexington, a member of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said she was “really happy” to see the full funding for school transportation, mentioning the legislature’s long failure to fully fund it.
Rep. Josie Raymond, D-Louisville, asked Petrie about criticisms that the increases in funding to SEEK, the funding formula for school districts, weren’t high enough to provide substantial raises for teachers in some districts.
HB 6 provides for a 4% increase in SEEK formula funding in the next fiscal year and another 2% increase in the fiscal year after. The association representing school administrators said earlier this week, before the changed budget bill was voted on, that the House GOP’s budget proposal fell short of the needed investment in SEEK. There’s no money earmarked specifically for teacher raises in the House GOP budget; the governor’s budget proposal calls for an across-the-board 11% raise for school employees.
Petrie responded to Raymond by saying he didn’t believe such criticisms were “fully vetted out.”
“I’m not sure that they’re actually targeting the same things that we’re targeting, but we are listening to them to see if there’s anything further to do,” Petrie said.
The bill also included funding for vacant positions in the executive branch that were previously cut in the original version of the budget bill, something Gov. Andy Beshear strongly pushed back on earlier this month saying it would hamper efforts to hire needed staff in state government.
Petrie said that “vacancy positions” often continue from year to year in state government that have to be funded, even if the positions seeking to be filled remain vacant. By removing vacant positions
“If it turns out that in the interim [session] or some other time, we get into hiring and we’ve got good positions being filled, and we need to fund vacancy credits, it’s easy enough,” Petrie said. “But in the meanwhile, we’ve got money that’s just laying on the table — we’ve taken off and put it to use somewhere else.”
Democrats on the committee asked questions about what was not in the budget bills, with Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, focusing on the lack of funding in the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The governor’s proposal includes a $10 million allocation into the trust fund; housing advocates have called for a $200 million investment overall to tackle the state’s affordable housing crisis.
Petrie said the legislature has invested in housing issues in past legislative sessions, specifically mentioning a House bill passed last year, and that adding more money toward the issue “didn’t seem like it was the best use of our money.”
Democrats decry little notice to review new bills
Despite Republican reassurances that the committee substitute bill didn’t have major changes from the original bill, Democrats criticized the lack of time they had to review the bills among other complaints.
Stevenson said she didn’t receive an updated version of the budget bills until around 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, hours ahead of the committee meeting. The committee substitute came as paper copies, Stevenson said, making it harder to search and compare budget documents.
“We believe that the public should absolutely have time to look at the bills, advocate stakeholders should be having time to call and talk to their representatives about what is in there or what is not in there,” Stevenson said.
When Before the full House met Wednesday, Rep. Rachel Roberts, D-Newport, moved to keep the floor open to allow lawmakers to file floor amendments to the budget bills. Floor amendments cannot be filed less than 24 hours in advance of a vote on a bill.
That motion failed 22-54, with a few Republicans joining Democrats to allow for that extra time to file floor amendments.
“All of this limits members’ abilities to ask questions that could have led to a better process and a better final outcome,” Roberts said after the motion had failed. “Once again I fear that sanctimony reigns here and democracy dies on this house floor.”
Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Nicholasville, one of the few Republicans who voted for the motion, said he wanted to prioritize transparency with the budget process, though he noted the “massive undertaking” of the budget still has a long way to go in the legislative process.
“I think that we need to make sure that we’re going at a pace that where there’s transparency,” Timoney said. “Perception is reality. We don’t want to seem like we’re rushing.”
As of Wednesday evening, the budget bills were not on the House’s agenda to be voted on Thursday.
Amye Bensenhaver, the executive director of the government transparency advocacy group Kentucky Open Government Coalition, questioned on social media whether 24 hours notice, as required by state open meetings law, was given to the public and the media about the special-called Appropriations and Revenue Committee meeting.
According to an archive by the Wayback Machine, a digital database that takes timestamped snapshots of websites, the special-called meeting of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee was not listed on the legislature’s daily calendar as of Tuesday evening.
Petrie said he understood the concerns regarding whether the state open meetings law was followed but that he believed nothing “was wrong” with the meeting.
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