By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Writer
The General Assembly went home Thursday without a budget, creating at least the possibility of a government shutdown. Then the speeches and finger-pointing began with each side claiming it had passed a responsible budget plan the other wouldn’t accept.
Gov. Steve Beshear said he will call a special session in May for lawmakers to try again. Meantime, voters may decide which side to blame – or blame both.
“The people of this commonwealth and I are disgusted by the total inability of the General Assembly to reach a budget agreement,” Beshear said. “Instead, lawmakers decided to put their egos and personal priorities above the needs of Kentucky families.” He called the inability of the Democratic House and Republican Senate to agree on a budget an “abject failure.”
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, agreed average Kentuckians may have a hard time understanding why the two sides couldn’t agree.
“The average guy on the street probably has reason to be somewhat disillusioned and somewhat disappointed,” he said. Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, said the public will understand the Senate’s refusal to go along with the House plan to incur new debt in order to build school and infrastructure projects. But he too recognized the public may be unhappy.
“It’s the most important job the General Assembly has and the General Assembly has failed to pass a budget,” Williams said.
The two chambers have been deadlocked since the Senate refused to go along with the new debt and construction (which the House termed a jobs creation bill) and some temporary business tax changes to raise more revenue in the House passed version, all of which the Senate stripped out. The House also wanted to preserve funding for public schools (SEEK) while the Senate wanted to make 1.5 percent cuts to all agencies and services. After several days of negotiations broke down, the Senate passed a budget bill which represented some of what the two sides had agreed to in negotiations to that point. But the House declined to take that up.
Late Wednesday, the House proposed a one-year continuation spending plan and sent that offer to the Senate, but early Thursday morning, the Senate rejected that. Williams said it is open to “broad interpretation” and would require even more severe cuts in the second year of the biennium, perhaps as much as 7 or 8 percent across the board.
Still, the House passed that measure late Thursday after the Senate had stopped work. Those two measures gave each side a reason to claim they’d passed a budget and posture as they try to shift blame to the other.
That’s what House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, called the process – “a political show.” Rep. Ron Crimm, R-Louisville, said the process was “a travesty.” House budget chairman, Rick Rand, D-Bedford, began his explanation of the continuation spending plan by saying all legislators knew they faced a “fiscal and financial crisis.”
They weren’t up to it. Some Democrats – Stumbo, Rand and Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond – said Williams and the Senate never intended to pass a budget. But Beshear said he thought both sides wanted a budget but got let their egos get in the way. Williams said the House plan would “bankrupt the state” in the second year, to which Stumbo replied: “It’s not true. A continuation budget wouldn’t bankrupt the state, it simply allows for the continuation of government.”
Beshear called the continuation spending plan “a gimmick” and compared it to the U.S. Congress which frequently passes continuing resolutions to keep government operating while members fight over budget philosophies. But the courts have ruled the governor cannot spend money in the absence of a legislatively enacted budget except on such constitutionally mandated services like schools and public protection.
That’s the prospect, Beshear said, if no budget deal is reached – a shutdown of much of state government. His administration will need a month to prepare for that eventuality as well as time to restructure some bonds both the House and Senate plans use to produce $113 million to balance. So he plans to call lawmakers back sometime in May – with our without a prior agreement – in time to enact a budget by June 1.
Williams has said without a prior agreement the Senate might just convene and immediately adjourn. Beshear said Thursday night, that is the call of the legislators but, “I guarantee the voters will also make some decisions this fall in November and they better be afraid of those decisions if they don’t get the job done.”
Beshear also said he does not plan to add expanded gambling to the call – unless leaders of both chambers ask him to, unlikely since Williams opposes expanded gambling.