By the time the General Assembly reaches the end of January, it has a pretty good idea of what its February and March will look like.
That’s because most of the major proposals the House and Senate expect to debate have been introduced, and the governor has presented a two-year budget for state government.
The budget, of course, is the biggest task legislators undertake in even-numbered years. And with the country’s economy still emerging from a tough six-year decline, putting it together has not been easy. The upcoming one, which starts July 1st, is no different.
Even so, there is a lot to recommend in Governor Beshear’s proposal, especially for Eastern Kentucky.
The biggest highlight, as has been widely reported, is four-laning the remainder of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway and extending it through our county so that Eastern Kentucky will have an interstate-quality road from Pikeville to I-64 in Winchester. Numerous governors have proposed doing this for decades, but it looks now like it will be reality by 2020.
The same goes for the ongoing work of the Minnie-Harold Connector, which would get another $50 million in the governor’s road plan.
The other major proposal helping us is a public-private broadband initiative that would start in our region and work west. Kentucky ranks near the bottom among the states in access to high-speed internet, which is a must-have to keep and lure economic development and to help our students succeed. This plan, announced with Congressman Hal Rogers and other legislative leaders, would undoubtedly help us move up the state rankings.
Speaking of education, Governor Beshear’s budget is a major step forward in several areas that are crucial here and across the state.
That includes the first increase in classroom funding in five years. There is also more than $95 million for new textbooks, school-safety initiatives, teacher training and after-school services.
He recommends a major expansion of preschool, making it possible for 5,100 more children to attend, and a major wave of construction at our public postsecondary schools. Locally, that includes $1.5 million for expansion of Big Sandy Community and Technical College’s Pikeville campus.
A program especially important to me – college scholarships funded with coal-severance dollars to help our students complete their four-year degree – would get twice as much money under the governor’s plan. I have filed legislation to make this pilot program permanent.
There are proposed raises for local school personnel, and state employees as well. In addition, the governor’s budget includes a sizeable increase in payments to the public retirement systems for state and local government employees, as called for in last year’s landmark law.
Other high points in the budget include:
· Restoring $110 million for the state’s childcare-assistance program, which unfortunately had to be scaled back early last year because of a decline in federal funding. This would help 10,000 low-income families afford childcare so the parents can continue to work.
· Giving 1,200 more people with intellectual or developmental disabilities the opportunity to stay in their community for treatment;
· Setting aside operating money to operate the state’s fourth new veterans nursing home in Radcliff, which is scheduled to open in the summer of 2015, and to complete a new veterans cemetery in Leslie County.
Given the size of the budget – $68 billion over two years if you count every dollar that flows through state government – there is not enough room to cover every detail here, but hopefully you have a much clearer picture of what will be debated during the next two-and-a-half months.
Feel free to let me know if you have any concerns or questions. My email address is Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov, and you can also leave a message for me or for any legislator at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.