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“The Week in Frankfort,” courtesy of the LRC

February 26, 2010

The Legislative Research Commission is the glue that hold together the legislative process in Frankfort, from the staff members that draft bills and educate lawmakers to the studies and publications the LRC produces on the issues affecting Kentucky.

The LRC public information office also offers “The Week In Frankfort,” a weekly roundup of action in Frankfort when the General Assembly is in session. I’m not sure if I just didn’t read it as thoroughly during previous years, but it seems to be particularly well-written this year.

“The Week in Frankfort” did garner a bit more attention in January with this assessment of Gov. Steve Beshear’s budget proposal that included gambling revenue and its swift rejection by the House and Senate –

If there’s such a thing as a reverberating thud, the last echoes of a big one faded away in the Capitol this week, as the governor’s dead-on-arrival budget proposal receded into memory and the General Assembly turned toward drafting its own.

It’s a good update on some of the things that have happened in the Capitol hallways during the week.

Here’s this week’s edition of “The Week in Frankfort” which offers some good info on what the House is considering for its budget proposal.

THIS WEEK IN FRANKFORT

The 2010 Kentucky General Assembly: Week 8

FRANKFORT – Building on a skeletal blueprint they had outlined just days before, House leaders this week struggled to find another $400 million to bridge the remaining gap between likely revenues and projected spending in the state’s biennial budget.

As the week wore on, budget writers expressed optimism it’s not a bridge too far.

In a bit of a surprise, they speculatively raised the possibility of one unusual stratagem for helping get there: Temporarily suspend one tax deduction that businesses can take – claiming losses from past years — on the promise it would only be for the two years of this budget, and that they could recoup those deductions in following years.

The notion was floated at mid-week, and it and other minor tweaks of the tax code (such as repealing the sales-tax exemption for hotel stays over thirty days, or eliminating the income-tax exemption for the first $80,000 made by non-military Kentuckians working overseas) remained under study.

Clearly, the time has come for unusual thinking. With February now behind it, the House faces a process-imposed virtual deadline to get the budget bill drafted, passed and sent to the Senate.

As a practical matter, that must be done by early March so the upper chamber can take its turn with the plan. After that comes the tough process of working out the two chambers’ differences in conference committee. The Legislature adjourns April 13. But the calendar calls for actual lawmaking to end March 30.

Here’s the year’s dilemma in a nutshell: A massive budget shortfall of at least a billion dollars (and maybe half-again that amount) is faced off against the Constitutional requirement for a balanced budget — with (as leaders have insisted) no general tax increase, no revenue from expanded gaming, no cuts in base K-12 school funding, Medicaid or Corrections, and no mass layoffs of state employees.

It’s at best a shape-shifting situation. But the budget proposal unfolding before us (vague as it still is) counts on additional federal stimulus dollars, along with certain targeted spending reductions, to cover most of the likely shortfall. It would figuratively ‘borrow’ from the state Medicaid program to cover much of the budget gap in the budget’s first year. This assumes a six-month extension of federal stimulus funds to help states with their recession-bloated Medicaid costs.

That, plus savings realized through cutting around 250 non-merit political positions, reducing payroll costs across all three branches of state government, offering cheaper options in the state-employees health plan, and reducing personal-service contract costs, would balance the budget the first year of the biennium. State workers and teachers would get no raises. Universities would be cut 2 percent. Public schools could have two fewer instructional days.

That’s the ‘good’ news. It’s the $400-million gap in the budget’s second year that runs aground on a lack of easily found or available money.

The need for lawmakers to write a budget from scratch came after Gov. Steve Beshear proposed – and lawmakers rejected – a plan counting on $780 million in envisioned tax revenues from allowing slot machines at state racetracks. This is the first session in memory where the Legislature has struck out on its own to craft a budget from the ground up, making for what one leader called a ‘defining moment’ for legislative independence.

Meanwhile, in floor action this week, the Senate passed SB 142, which would allow students to take an elective high-school course on the historical, social, and cultural influence of the Bible. This Biblical literacy course, supporters say, will be designed to teach, not preach.

The argument supporters make in favor of high-school Bible study is this: It’s hard to take a high school (or college) literature course without studying a classic work that references the Bible, from Paradise Lost to The Chronicles of Narnia. Some of the greatest films in history have drawn from the Bible, from the The Ten Commandments to the recent The Da Vinci Code.

Understanding any number of historical events — the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Middle East conflict, even the Pilgrims arriving on this continent — is dependent on knowing the Biblical-historical context surrounding them. And few dispute that the Bible, just as a work of history and literature, has influenced civilization profoundly. Biblical literacy outside its strictly religious context is part of a well-rounded education.

To make sure that the course offers a scholarly look at the Bible in a genuine academic context, the bill mandates a two-step process for implementing it. First, the state Board of Education would develop guidelines on how the course would be taught, including the focus on how the Bible has influenced modern society through literature, history, and culture. Second, each school-based decision-making council would have to approve the course design before it could be offered to that school’s students. The course would be an elective, not required for graduation.

The bill now goes to the House.

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