We succeeded last week in passing a two-year, $22 billion biennial budget for the Commonwealth that restores funding for some of our most effective programs in K-12 education, lessens the blow of deep cuts the governor proposed for our public colleges and universities and at the same time takes major strides toward addressing the pension crisis.
Throughout the negotiation process, the House fought to protect public education and maintain the positive momentum our students and teachers have made, while also taking historic steps to strengthen Kentucky’s pension systems for retired teachers and state employees.
In these goals, we achieved solid results – no cuts will be made to K-12 funding for family resource and youth service centers, dropout prevention efforts, preschool and after-school programs, gifted classes, professional development and textbook purchases. Additionally, we set aside more than $1.2 billion in new money to shore up KTRS and KERS, while also providing an additional $125 million in a permanent fund to address future pension costs after an independent audit is conducted to determine the best placement of the money.
The House was also successful in raising preschool eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, opening the door for many more Kentucky children to obtain high-quality instruction in preparation for kindergarten. We also maintained the “Powerball Promise” by returning virtually all state lottery proceeds to state KEES scholarships and need-based scholarship programs.
Additionally, the budget provides more than $90 million for urgent-needs schools to reduce the number of aging facilities our students and staffs now use. There are also no funding cuts for the Kentucky School for the Blind and the Kentucky School for the Deaf. The budget continues this emphasis on public education by including $15 million over the biennium to expand a separate dual-credit program that allows high school students to earn college credit.
In the end, the importance of passing a budget required a compromise that calls for a 4.5 percent cut to higher education, but this reduction is half of the 9 percent cut that both Gov. Bevin and the Senate originally sought in each of the next two fiscal years. (Kentucky State University in Frankfort has been excluded from these reductions as it develops a performance improvement plan.)
To help offset these cuts, and provide much-needed assistance to working families, we urged our Senate colleagues to join us in creation of the House’s new “Work Ready” Scholarship Program that will help create a reliable, well-trained workforce without saddling our young students with enormous college debt. I am pleased to report that both the Senate and the House gave final approval to our legislation to make this program a reality on Friday -- our 60th and last legislative day.
Beginning this fall, “Work Ready” will help more than 3,200 Kentucky high school seniors work toward a two-year associates degree at any applicable public college or university, or any independent not-for-profit college, with no tuition costs after state scholarships and federal grants are factored in. The budget includes $9.4 million in fiscal year 2017 and $15.9 million in fiscal year 2018 to launch the program that will include important safeguards for accountability, such as a requirement that students maintain a 2.5 grade point average and pay back funds from any semester that they drop out of their course work.
Other educational advances in the budget include increasing preschool eligibility from 160 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent, a move that will help thousands of young children.
For older students, we increased funding for a dual-credit program that helps high school students obtain college credit, making it easier for many districts that have difficulty paying for this. We also ensure all state lottery proceeds go toward education, including the CAP/KTG programs many depend on to attend college.
We also approved the governor’s request to borrow $100 million in bonds to fund workforce development projects across the Commonwealth, while setting provisions for the fund’s use -- 10 percent will be allocated to projects within the 54-county Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR); one project will be granted to each of the four workforce regions in the state; and no more than 25 percent of funds can go into a single congressional district.
Coal counties will also see a greater portion of coal severance tax dollars returned to their local governments, as the House continues its goal to eventually return 100 percent.
Much of our investment in the state was made possible by more than $908 million in new state revenue expected between now and the end of fiscal year 2018. The budget does include nine percent cuts to many state agencies at the governor’s request; he has promised no interruption in services, but the House will be vigilant in its oversight of how these cuts will impact the Commonwealth.
Other budget highlights include:
• Kentucky State Parks will receive millions of dollars for life-safety projects to make repairs that could cause injury if not fixed.
• The Judicial Branch will have funding as the chief justice requested.
• Kentucky State Police trooper raises are funded.
• The budget provides more money for heroin and drug treatment.
• The budget calls for state mine-safety inspections to mirror the number of federal inspections, as the House proposed.
• The CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocate) will receive $3 million to expand further statewide. CASA helps children in abuse and neglect cases.
• Kentucky Educational Television (KET) will not be cut.
Although the budget is complete, it must still be reviewed by the governor, who can choose to sign or reject it or remove portions through a line-item veto. He will have about 10 days to make that decision, but our hope is that he will retain all of the new programs I have mentioned.
Creating a budget of this size involved many hours of debate and discussion. In the end, the final document reflects a lot of compromise and heartfelt concern expressed from all sides of the political equation. Throughout this process, I worked hard to represent the interests of the people of Bracken, Fleming, Mason and Robertson counties in the 70th District to the very best of my ability. I say it often, but I remain deeply honored to serve as your state representative.