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Kentucky Lawmakers Reach 'Stalemate' In Budget Talks

Kevin Bratcher holds papers at desk during committee meeting.
Legislative Research Commission
Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 3, a bill geared toward juvenile justice reform before the House Judiciary Committee.

After hours of negotiations on Sunday, state lawmakers once again failed to agree on a budget, halting their meeting abruptly at about 11:30 p.m.

The failure raises doubts about whether the House and Senate can agree on a budget by the end of this year’s General Assembly on Tuesday. Lawmakers will likely have to adjust the legislative calendar to approve a budget bill before the legislature is scheduled to disband for the year.

“It appears to be at a complete stalemate,” said Senate Minority Floor Leader Ray Jones, a Democrat from Pikeville.

Lawmakers had planned to come to an agreement on Sunday to have a budget bill ready for votes in the House and Senate on Tuesday. While it appears the budget conference committee will not have an agreement in time, lawmakers had no plans to alter the official calendar.

The state constitution allows lawmakers to push back the last day until Friday, April 15.

If the legislature doesn’t approve a budget by then, Gov. Matt Bevin would have to call a special legislative session, which would cost about $63,000 per day.

Leaders from the Democratic-led House have attempted to shield K-12 programs and higher education institutions from nearly across-the-board 9 percent spending cuts proposed by Bevin.

Republican leadership from the Senate has pushed for the cuts to put more money into the state’s ailing pension systems.

On Friday, House Democrats announced they would agree to 2 percent cuts to higher education over the two-year budget cycle. But Senate Republicans were holding out for 4.5 percent cuts each year and a 2 percent current-year spending cut.

If a budget isn’t approved by July 1, state government will partially shut down.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said talks broke down because the House wouldn’t put as much money into the pension systems as the Senate wanted.

“Unfortunately, until such time as our House colleagues see fit to invest in what’s truly a collapsing pension system, we won’t have a budget,” he said.

The Senate put about $374 million more into the state pension systems and a newly devised pension “permanent fund” dedicated to future pension contributions, according to McDaniel.

The Senate also disapproved of the House’s plans for a $23 million program for community college scholarships and its effort to dedicate coal severance revenues to counties, McDaniel said.

“With all the spending the House wants to do in all these areas, we can’t make the investment in the pensions,” he said.

House Democrats said Senate leaders “walked away” during discussions about pushing back the official last day of the legislative session.

A statement released by House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s office after the negotiations ended Sunday night said lawmakers need more time to hammer out differences between the two chambers’ plans.

“We have gone through about half of our differences document and resolved most of the disagreements in that portion," the statement read. "We also thought we had a framework for a compromise, but we learned that there were problems in some areas we thought had already been agreed to."

McDaniel said leaders of both chambers had come to an agreement over how much to cut higher education by: 4.5 percent each year and a 2 percent current-year spending cut — a plan that presidents from the state’s universities and community college system announced they agreed to on Friday.

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