LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: Representative Chris Freeland

Legislature passes budget in anticipation of COVID-19 impact on state revenue
By State Representative Chris Freeland

Members of the Kentucky House and Senate met in Frankfort this week to finalize work on several budget bills, including a one-year budget that guides the state’s spending for the fiscal year beginning on July 1. To conduct legislative business while following recommendations from public health officials to slow the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the House made additional changes to the steps taken in early March. This week, we implemented a new procedure that allows us to vote from anywhere on the Capitol grounds. Doing so limited the number of individuals on the House Floor while still ensuring that we could cast votes on behalf of our constituents. While a legislative first, these actions reflect House Majority Leadership’s intent to preserve each district’s right to participate in the budget process.

In addition to how we voted, this pandemic also affected what we voted on. Under normal circumstances, our state budget is crafted to cover two fiscal years. But with the uncertainties of the state’s economy, we opted for a one-year budget that will allow us to take another look next session when we have more information about how COVID-19 impacts both our revenue and our needs. The approved budget plan includes $11.4 billion in funding for state agencies and programs, including public education, Medicaid, and programs aimed at lessening the spread of COVID-19 throughout this commonwealth.

Much like our daily lives, the budget we sent to the Governor is a departure from the version approved by the House before the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, we were able to make great strides in funding for education, additional social worker positions, and raises for educators, school and state employees.The version of HB 352 we passed this week is much more austere and based on a pessimistic expectation of our revenue forecast. While always important, it became even more critical that we invest every dollar of our budget in areas that move this state forward.

The approved version of HB 352 keeps funding flat for many areas of state government, including the SEEK, or per-pupil,allocation for Kentucky’s public schools, which is the state’s main funding formula for K-12 schools. The version passed by the House had increased that SEEK spending to record levels for the second budget in a row. It also does not include an allocation for any public employee pay raises.

It was a fight to be able to accomplish what we did, including funding the first phase of the School Safety Act and fully funding the actuarially required contributions to the Kentucky Retirement System and the Kentucky Teacher’s Retirement System, as well as fully funding the teacher’s health insurance commitment. It also continues the freeze on pension contribution rates for quasi-governmental agencies, which include regional universities, local health departments, and domestic violence shelters across the state.

In addition to the executive branch budget, legislators also approved an updated version of the judicial branch budget, transportation road plan, and transportation cabinet budget. All bills have been sent to Governor Beshear for his consideration. The Governor has ten days to issue any vetoes he may wish to make, and we are scheduled to return on April 13 to consider overriding vetoes he might issue.

We’re going to work with what we have and do what needs to be done as we face COVID-19. But make no mistake, while our short term priorities have changed, our long term commitment to Kentucky and its people remains the same.

As we finished session for the week, I am reflecting on all the work done by the General Assembly to fulfill our constitutional responsibility and moral obligation to our state. We worked through trying times to negotiate a budget that serves the state’s needs while being accountable to taxpayers. Now, we begin preparing for next session and how we can help our people and our state recover from COVID-19.

The General Assembly will continue working to help move Kentucky forward through this crisis. I can be reached through the toll-free message line if you have any comments or questions, call 1-800-372-7181. You can also contact me via e-mail at Chris.Freeland@lrc.ky.gov. You can also keep track through the Kentucky Legislature Home Page at legislature.ky.gov.