Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 8, 2014

Break the trend

Legislators should not wait until last day to enact budget

The Independent

ASHLAND — As legislators gather in Frankfort for the start of the 60-day 2014 General Assembly, nearly 500 bills have been prefiled for legislators to consider. But the 38 members of the Kentucky Senate and 100 members of the House of Representatives are in agreement about what will be the most important item of business between now and their scheduled adjournment on April 15. It is the approval of the two-year budget that will go into effect on July 1.

Since legislators have no more important job than the approval of the state budget for the next two years, one would think that getting both the House and the Senate to approve a budget before the General Assembly ends in 60 business days would be a slow, deliberate process that welcomes lively debate over everything from spending priorities to taxes.

But if that occurs in 2014, it would be the exception. If things go as usual in 2014, approval of the budget will be the last thing legislators do before taking a break on March 31 and then returning to Frankfort on April 14 and April 15. During those final two days, legislators are only supposed to take action on any bill Gov. Steve Beshear may have vetoed, but in some years, the budget was not approved until Day 60.

On paper, the budget process is orderly. As required by the Kentucky Constitution, the House of Representatives must first approve its version of the two-year budget. The House-approved budget then is sent to the Senate, and ideally the Senate is to approve its version of the budget in time for the House and Senate conference committee to negotiate on the differences between the two budgets in hopes of coming up with the document that can be approved by both the House, controlled by Democrats, and the Senate, controlled by Republicans. If things go as planned, all members of the General Assembly will receive the compromise budget in time to read it, debate it and maybe even amend it before a final vote on it.

But few people can remember the last item things went as planned in Frankfort. In recent years, action on the budget has occurred so late in the 60-day session that members of both the House and the Senate were forced to vote on a budget they had not even had time to read.

That’s a sure recipe for disaster. Not only does the mad rush to pass a budget give some legislators the opportunity to sneak funding  or pet projects for the folks back home without most legislators even knowing it. In short, the mad rush to enact a budget before adjournment is simply irresponsible and reckless fiscal management of tax dollars. It also is unnecessary if legislators concentrate on approving a responsible budget instead of playing politics.

The budget legislators will be asked to approve in 2014 wull require some tough financial decisions. Gov, Steve Beshear has said he will not call for any new taxes in the budget. His annual State of the Commonwealth address before the enitre General Assembly was last night.

The budget must include millions of dollars in order for legislators to keep their promise to shore up the state’s pension funds, and public schools are asking for restoration of the more than $600 million in funding cuts in recent years.  While public schools may be spared, other programs are going to see more cuts. In short, this promises to be another session in which the state only has enough money to tread water instead of swimming forward.

Because of the tough decisions legislators must make in this budget, it is important that is fully and fairly debated before being enacted. That can’t be done at the last minute. Several times in recent years, legislators have failed to approve a budget in the regular session, forcing the governor to call a special session. That can’t be allowed to happen this year.