Senate budget committee approves bills, awaits next step on floor

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - As expected, changes were made to the House-passed budget bills by the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Tuesday in the first part of the two-year spending proposal.

 

The judicial branch budget saw several changes, according to Chairman Sen. Christian McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, including removing money for renovating the Supreme Court chambers and capital.


There is also no funding for the legislative and judicial retirement systems, he said, because those are the best-funded public pension systems in the state.


On the plus side, McDaniel says since required contributions to the County Employee Retirement System are less than anticipated - $8.6 million over the next two years - that will go toward salary increases for judges and circuit clerks.  The committee also left in House language allowing the Supreme Court to raise fees to fund pay increases for non-elected court personnel.


“What we are doing is trying to focus on investing in the obligations that we currently have and address things like the pay issues inside the court and others, rather than focus on renovations and new construction.”


Supreme Court Justice Daniel J. Venters says he has concerns about the changes made to the House-passed budget.  “The Senate has increased to $12 million, a fund transfer from the judicial branch,” he said, which is twice the amount proposed in the House version. 


“The loss of that money over and above what the House set it at will seriously hamper the ability of our court system to give raises to the most needy of our employees, deputy clerks throughout the commonwealth, many of whom are earning insufficient wages,” Venters said.


“Even though we can raise court filing fees to help compensate that our ability to fund pay raises is going to be severely hampered, according to our accounting people.”


While the legislative branch budget bill drew little comment, a lot of discussion centered on House Bill 200, the executive branch budget, and HB 366, its companion revenue bill.


The Senate rejected the House’s plan to create new taxes on tobacco products and prescription opiates in order to boost school spending that was expected to create $500 million in tax increases.


Another provision mandates schools control entrances electronically instead of having a greeter, which has been an option up until now.  The Senate also encourages hiring of more school resource officers by offering incentives to schools to hire retired officers and active KSP troopers. They would exempt schools from having to make contributions to the retirement system for them.   


The bill cuts funding from the House version to operate the Access to Justice program, which aids the poor, veterans and the elderly.


It adds language requiring retired teachers’ single coverage health insurance be calculated the same way as the current year, with any shortfalls made up by the trust fund, which stands at nearly $1 billion.


“This ensures that retired teacher health benefits will not be affected by this budget,” said McDaniel, whose statement drew applause from teachers in the committee room.


The Senate also funded transportation expenses at local school districts which was uncovered in Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan.


McDaniel said much of state government would have the 6.25 percent spending cut that Bevin recommended and it includes the state’s universities.


“What you see is our genuine hope that we can finally realize the bottom of the financial crisis that we have hit,” McDaniel told the committee. “It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly is our hope.”


Each budget bill was approved without dissent, although some Democratic members of the committee “passed.”  Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, said the Democratic minority were giving a briefing on the budget plan Monday night but didn’t get the first real look at the bill  until Tuesday’s hearing.


“I like to know what I am voting on before I vote on it,” she said.  “This bill is so transparent, I don’t even see it.”


Webb also complained about the lack of budget hearings. “We’ve not taken testimony, we haven’t had committee meetings pertaining to the House budget in any capacity at all.  That’s inexcusable.”


The budget bills now head to the Senate floor.

     

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