FRANKFORT — It began with a shouting match between Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, each excoriating the other’s party’s presidents and U.S. Senate candidates.
From there, the conversation turned to whether to fund bonds for the renovation of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Civic Center, with Democrats asking to let Lexington Mayor Jim Gray speak and Republicans arguing Gray would provide only one side of the story.
It isn’t fair, said Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, without also hearing from average fans of the University of Kentucky basketball program or local business people.
It was the fourth day of a budget conference between leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate who are supposed to be working toward a compromise agreement on competing versions of a new, two-year state budget.
But it didn’t look that way. At times, it looked more like a food fight.
Republicans say Democrats want to include an unacceptable level of debt in the new budget. Democrats, led by Stumbo, say it makes sense to borrow money now when interest rates are at near-historic lows and a tight job market is likely to reduce the costs of construction.
The city of Lexington wants $65 million from the state to help finance the $328 million renovation of its downtown basketball arena which plays host to the University of Kentucky basketball team and the Lexington Civic Center. Lexington is proposing to pay most of the cost for the project with an increase in the local hotel tax, money from the city and university and from naming rights. Gray assured lawmakers the name would still include “Rupp Arena.”
For a time Saturday, Republicans resisted letting Gray speak and then reluctantly agreed to hear him after he provided documents about the project to them during a break. But when the meeting resumed, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, suggested Gray simply answer “five or six questions and if he can’t discuss that in public, then we can go from there.”