Legislative Update - Week of March 30, 2020
Updated: Sep 5
Please accept my apologies for being tardy. Like many of you, my days right now are a little fuzzy! I hope you are documenting some parts of this unusual time. After you reach a certain age (and I am there!) time moves so quickly you forget the details.
Years from now, when we recall what we did to limit the spread of the coronavirus, one of my memories will be the historic action the General Assembly took on Wednesday so it could approve the state’s budget and several other related bills. As you may recall, I and another legislator stood on the floor and complained about the Legislature doing “business as usual”. We were “chastised” I guess you could call it. Then some staff in Frankfort were diagnosed with COVID 19 and there was a realization that this was something that demanded our attention.
Under Kentucky’s 1891 constitution, legislative sessions are required to “be held at the seat of government,” unless the Governor moves them during times of conflict or pestilence. While the latter certainly could have applied, a different route was employed and I applaud that action. Thanks to technology that couldn’t have been dreamed of 130 years ago, my fellow legislators and I were able to monitor proceedings and cast our votes from the safety of our Capitol offices or nearby vehicles. These votes were relayed electronically to a handful of legislative leaders and staff in the House and Senate chambers who then tabulated the totals.
That process understandably took longer than normal, and great patience from those on the floor but it got the job done.
We hope that the budget we sent to Governor Andy Beshear this past week will get the job done, too, but legislators are well aware that the already-low financial projections we used – based on estimates made in December – will still probably be too high as our country faces a steep recession driven by the necessary response to the coronavirus. That uncertainty is why the General Assembly approved a budget for just one fiscal year rather than the normal two. In January, when the next legislative session begins, we should have a much better idea of where the state stands financially.
When we began working on the budget we hoped there would be money for small raises for school and state government employees, enough funds to hire new social workers and increase funding for our public schools, colleges and universities. None of that, unfortunately, could be included in the budget that ultimately passed. Essentially, the spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year will be the same as the one governing the state now.
That’s good news in some cases. For quasi-governmental agencies like public health departments, domestic violence shelters and mental-health organizations, this decision means they will have a third year where their contributions to the state retirement system will be frozen, which will make it easier for them to keep their doors open. The same freeze applies to local governments' retirement contributions as well.
Another positive policy decision in this budget is a return of virtually all coal severance tax dollars to coal-producing counties, the first time that’s ever been done. This will help them as they continue managing a local economy already struggling because of a years-long decline in the coal industry.
On the downside, the spending freeze in the budget also means no new slots for the Michelle P. and Supports for Community Living Medicaid waiver programs, which help those with intellectual or developmental disabilities live independently at home. The waiting lists for these are already in the thousands.
There are some other troubling aspects in the budget, as well. No steps were taken to reverse tax cuts we clearly cannot afford at this time. The governor’s office will have its funding cut by a half-million dollars while other constitutional offices are not asked to make a similar sacrifice. At a time when Governor Beshear is doing an excellent job of leading Kentucky during this crisis, this is exactly the wrong time to be singling his office out.
Teachers could also be negatively impacted, because the budget allows some funding for their retirement system to be withheld if state spending drops significantly. We have worked hard in recent years to make our public retirement systems financially healthy, but this approach could undermine that. I do not want to see us repeat the mistakes of the past in failing to make the required contribution in tough economic times.
Another downside is that the budget provides almost no new sources of revenue, other than an increase on e-cigarettes, and nearly all of that is returned in new tax cuts. Proposals setting the stage for income-raising initiatives like sports wagering, expanded gaming and medical marijuana are all but dead with only a few legislative days remaining.
While the state budget outlook is bleak, the recently passed $2 trillion coronavirus-relief package by Congress will be a significant help during this time.
State and local governments will get more than $1.7 billion from it, while those receiving unemployment payments will see an extra $600 a week for the next four months, an amount expected to exceed $600 million.
The $1,200 rebate checks most of us will get will total $4 billion here in Kentucky; our schools are slated to get nearly $200 million; and increased Medicaid assistance could bring in almost $500 million. Well over $100 million more will go to help public transit; to buy more personal protective and medical equipment; to assist the homeless; and to help families with their heating and cooling bills. Businesses and medical providers will be able to access potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loans and grants, too.
For now, other legislators and I are home until we return to the Capitol on April 13th. Our primary work then will be deciding whether to override any vetoes Governor Beshear issues, but there is a good chance other bills will be considered, too.
I will continue to keep you updated, and I ask that you continue letting me know your views or concerns about issues affecting Kentucky. Please stay home and stay well. If I can help connect you to services, do not hesitate to reach out. You can always email me at Maria.Sorolis@lrc.ky.gov while the toll-free message line for all state legislators is 1-800-372-7181, and Facebook messenger works, too! We will get through this and we will get through this together. No Kentuckian left behind!