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Capitol Notes: More than a Budget Happening in Frankfort

By Scott Payton
Legislative Research Commission Public Information

It was written 414 winters ago that “If” was the key word in politics. And not as a bad thing.

“Much virtue in If.”

Now that January has mercifully blown through – and with it Tuesday’s candidate filing deadline — the landscape in Frankfort should clear of its cold, uncertain fog. Time to address the virtue in questions of If.

We can wonder:

If last year’s bipartisan cooperation will be sustained through a longer, more rigorous full session, with a budget on the table and elections in the air?

If a budget can go through both chambers and gets the governor’s signature without a session’s-end trainwreck?

If tax reform will be discussed or dismissed, again?

If casino gambling is seriously debated – or, a historic long-shot, passed? And if passed, will that profoundly change Kentucky’s treasure and Treasury and soul?

If dozens of issues important to someone, or to many, will make it through a process deliberately designed to throw up slowing speedbumps?

Because our shared future is at stake and no public act of law should be undertaken casually or too easily. If the process seems ponderous and hard, it’s meant to be. There are no Kingly dictates in a peoples’ democracy. We meet on shifting ground. We live in civic possibility, in the word ‘if.’

The week in Frankfort saw a stepped up committee meetings schedule, and a clear sense of purposeful movement with the session a fourth over. It’s time.

One interesting piece of news relating back to last session came down from Washington this week. It seems the Feds are indeed going to allow pilot projects in growing industrial (non-marijuana) hemp.

Since the last Legislature passed enabling legislation allowing us to proceed in that eventuality, experimental hemp farming may without further legislative action be a reality in Kentucky as soon as this year. Tobacco farmers, wrecked by loss of the old Tobacco Program and looking for ways to feed their kids, are well equipped to transition to hemp if they choose. That story will unfold.

Administration budget officials told the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee this week that their spending recommendation includes $19.8 billion in expected General Fund revenues. But their overall proposal is a complex affair. It includes $370 million in fund transfers, $166.8 million in savings from the federal Affordable Care Act, $98.6 million in state spending cuts (including five percent cuts for most state agencies and 2.5 percent cuts for state universities and the Kentucky State Police), a carryover from fiscal year 2014, and other money from other resources or funding lapses.

There’s lots of digging and moving parts. And plenty for lawmakers to look at in coming weeks of hopeful thaw till a budget’s drawn in March.

The budget as proposed from the administration does not count on funding from casinos or expanded gaming. Nor the Rainy Day Fund, more formally known as the state Budget Reserve Trust Fund, which has $98 million socked away for the worst of times. Nor tax reform money either.

But there’s more than a budget happening in Frankfort.

The Senate this week passed an interesting bill that reflects the digital age all kids seem to understand instinctively, but we grownups struggle with. It’s a bill that would allow computer-programming language courses to meet the foreign-language requirement in high school. It’s estimated more than a million good-paying software-programming jobs will be unfilled by 2020. Kentucky kids should be lined up for them. This may help.

Another education bill in the Senate would ensure that SEEK funding – the formula used to calculate General Fund dollars to local school districts – could not be withheld from schools as a punishment for perceived transgressions.

A House committee approved a measure to raise the state minimum wage. The bill would raise it from the current $7.25 an hour by 95 cents on July 1 and by another 95 cent each of the next two years. It will land at $10.10 on July 1, 2016. This seems to be an emerging issue nationally, and one worth watching in Kentucky. We may feel like a bellwether.

If it happens.

Always in politics, if.

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