With the 2024 General Assembly now into its second week, debates are already swirling around key issues including a new state budget, education spending and school choice, public safety, and exemptions to the state’s abortion ban. Legislative leaders gathered on Kentucky Tonight to discuss those topics and other priorities for the session.
The State Budget
Gov. Andy Beshear released his spending plan in late December – two weeks before the legislature even convened. House Minority Floor Leader Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort) says the governor’s budget, which is embodied in House Bill 114, includes $172 million in each year of the biennium for universal pre-kindergarten, full funding for Medicaid expansion, money for an Ohio River bridge at Henderson and to complete expansion of the Mountain Parkway, and pay increases for state employees and public school personnel. But it’s uncertain how warmly Republican leaders will embrace the Democratic governor’s ideas.
“In his speech, he highlighted a cooperative spirit between his office and the Kentucky General Assembly,” says Graham. “I hope we can work together so that we can take on the challenges that this commonwealth is having.”
In his review of the governor’s proposal, Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) says there are items GOP legislators agree on, such as infrastructure spending, and additional recovery funds for communities damaged by tornados in 2021 and floods in 2022.
But Stivers says he’s unconvinced about pre-K, saying the data is mixed on how it benefits young children. Instead, he says wants to fund daycare options, which he contends would help get parents back into the workforce. Stivers says Beshear’s expenditures would also impede Republican plans to eliminate the state income tax.
“The budget he’s got proposed probably won’t allow us to hit triggers ever to try to relieve the burden on Kentucky taxpayers and working-class people,” says Stivers.
That push to cut the income tax to 0 percent could hurt the state’s ability to pay its recurring bills, according to Senate Minority Floor Leader Gerald Neal of Louisville. He calls Beshear’s proposal “sound” and “rational” and contends that with historic budget surpluses and a strong economy, lawmakers should seriously consider new investments.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity here,” says Neal. “I would encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle that we need to look very carefully at how we lay the foundation of the future.”
Republicans are wary of tapping the Budget Reserve Trust Fund (also known as the Rainy Day Fund) for investments that will result in recurring expenses. House Speaker David Osborne (R-Prospect) says that money, if it’s used, should only be for one-time investments such as an infrastructure project or to pay down public pension debts.
As for the budget proposal from House Republicans, Osborne says that document is still a week or two away. He says a late salary report from the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet required the budget committee to rework their figures.
Regarding pay raises for state employees, Osborne says it’s not as simple as giving an across-the-board percentage increase. Instead, he says those raises need to consider employee recruitment and retention issues for new and long-term workers as well as regional cost-of-living variations.
“We need to be more thoughtful about how we give those raises,” says Osborne. “Everybody acknowledges that we need to adequately compensate our state employees, but as part of that we need to make the entire pay scale more competitive up and down the ranks.”
Osborne is also unable to say whether a cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees will be in the House budget. He says lawmakers understand the inflation pressures on retirees who haven’t had a COLA in more than a decade, but he says it’s a difficult increase to apply across the various public pension systems.
The Speaker says the House budget crafted by Republicans will continue to emphasize public education.
“We can certainly have the debate... about whether It is enough or whether it should be more,” the Speaker says, “but it’s not debatable that we’ve committed record funding every single year to education.”
Teacher pay remains a critical issue, though. While overall education funding has increased, Osborne says teacher pay has lost ground in inflation-adjusted dollars. That’s led to teacher shortages across the commonwealth, and pay rates that aren’t competitive with neighboring states.
But there’s no consensus on the best way to provide those raises. Gov. Beshear wants an across-the-board increase of 11 percent. Senate President Stivers contends that will exacerbate pay disparities that already exist between the state’s wealthier and poorer school districts. He says any pay raises should be handled through the per-pupil funding known as SEEK that goes to public schools.
Osborne disagrees with the SEEK approach, saying that only addresses state dollars flowing to schools. He says some districts are better able to leverage federal education moneys, which can allow them to pay their teachers more regardless of what happens with SEEK appropriations.
As school funding disparities reach levels not seen since the historic court challenge that led to the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, lawmakers may need to overhaul the SEEK formula itself. Stivers says he’s not sure the General Assembly can tackle that issue this session, but he acknowledges it will have to be addressed in the future.
After the state Supreme Court struck down a scholarship tax credit to help fund charter schools and other education options, Republicans are calling for an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution that would allow public dollars to flow to private schools. Osborne and Stivers say they believe such a bill would have the requisite two-thirds majority support for a proposed constitutional amendment to pass both chambers.
Democrats Neal and Graham oppose that idea, saying that sending tax dollars to private institutions would compromise the state’s ability to adequately educate youth in public schools.
“[It] would be wrong and it would go against all the things in which the constitution of Kentucky establishes that we must have public education and it must be provided by the public in terms of taxes,” says Graham, a former public school history teacher.
Abortion, Public Safety, and Medical Marijuana
This week Sen. David Yates, a Louisville Democrat, filed legislation to create exceptions to the state’s abortion ban for the victims of rape and incest, and in cases where the life of the mother is at risk or the pregnancy is nonviable. Such exemptions were a key issue during last year’s governor’s race.
Stivers says an exemption to protect the life of the mother already exists in state law. He says Yates’ bill will be assigned to a committee, but he isn’t sure how it might fare. He says determining the cut-off point for these exceptions will be a difficult choice for lawmakers.
“You have to look down inside your heart and your soul and you have to make a decision,” says Stivers. “I’m not going to be judgmental no matter what the decision is.”
Neal agrees that determining viability of a fetus is a tough question. But he adds that the state should not be involved in personal medical decisions
“My position on that is that a state government should not be directing a woman how she controls her body and health choices,” says Neal.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Whitney Westerfield (R-Fruit Hill) has proposed legislation to provide extensive social service supports to pregnant women and new mothers that would cost the state more than $500 million over the next two years. Stivers says he’s not read the bill yet, but he agrees the General Assembly should provide better wrap-around services for mothers.
Among the House priorities this year, according to Osborne, is a 16-point anti-crime bill that includes tougher penalties for attempted murder, vandalism, those who commit multiple violent offenses, or knowingly sell fentanyl-laced drugs that contribute to an overdose death.
Osborne describes the Safer Kentucky Act as a well-thought-out, bipartisan bill. But some Democrats, including Neal, are concerned the legislation may lead to unintended consequences for the state. Stivers says he hopes lawmakers will address the root causes of crime in the commonwealth, including, he says, inadequate education, poor mental health supports, and drug addiction.
The General Assembly approved the use of medical marijuana last year, but it will still be another year before Kentucky doctors can prescribe the drug to patients with seven qualifying conditions. Now, Gov. Beshear wants to expand the number of qualifying conditions to 21. Stivers, who opposes medical marijuana, says a growing number of studies indicate adverse health and mental health impacts from marijuana use.
Osborne does support medicinal cannabis, but he argues that the state needs to fix a number of administrative issues with the current law before allowing people with additional conditions to seek a prescription. Neal also supports medical marijuana, but says that any expansion of the program should be done carefully and based on solid research.