Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Lawmakers at impasse on state budget

This from Ronnie Ellis in the Richmond Register:
House and Senate leaders broke off negotiations on a new state budget around 10 p.m. Monday saying they are farther apart than when they began.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo

Afterward, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Republican Gov. Matt Bevin each blamed the other for the impasse and the increasing tensions between the two sides.

Bevin released a video on his Facebook page giving out the legislative message line phone number and asking people to call and urge Stumbo “to sit down in good faith and negotiate a budget.” As he’d done earlier on his Twitter account, Bevin said he’s willing to negotiate but Stumbo isn’t.

Stumbo responded in kind.

Following the breakup of the meeting Monday night, Stumbo told reporters negotiators “are getting farther and farther apart.”

Stumbo said his Monday morning discussions with Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, seemed promising. But that changed after Stivers and other Republican senators met with Bevin around noon, according to Stumbo.

“I think the governor injected himself around noon and this afternoon there was a different tone,” Stumbo said.

Stivers didn’t seem to disagree the two parties aren’t getting closer, but he placed the blame on Democrats who don’t want to agree to cuts in higher education or give up their influence on projects in their districts funded by coal severance taxes.

Republicans are insisting the money be used to shore up the state’s troubled pension systems.
Stumbo countered that there is enough money in the budget to address pensions effectively and also invest in education.

“If you have the money, you don’t short-change education,” he said.

As previously reported, Bevin wants to cut spending by $650 million, primarily through 4.5 percent cuts to most of state government, and apply all of that and any excess revenues over expenses to pensions.

The House restored the cuts to higher education and to support services for public schools; they also eliminated a “permanent fund” sought by Bevin to collect those savings until audits can determine which pension funds most need the extra money.

After the House passed its budget, the Senate re-wrote it to more closely resemble — though not entirely — Bevin’s proposal.

After the morning’s meetings between Stivers and Stumbo — and apparently after Republicans met with Bevin — the conference committee of leaders from both parties and chambers began discussions around 2 p.m.

Senate budget chairman Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, kicked it off, saying the Senate proposes contributing $1.447 billion to pensions while the House would only commit $1.2 billion.

“We think that is a good number and a number we do not intend to deviate from,” McDaniel said of the Senate appropriation.

Stivers acknowledged Democrats’ concern about the permanent fund sought by Bevin, offering to insert language that its accrued funds could only be spent on pensions unless the governor received prior approval from lawmakers to use it for other purposes.

House budget chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford, said the House feels equally strongly about its determination to protect higher education from cuts and to restore funding for public school support services like family resource centers.

“That is something we feel strongly about and we are willing to sit at this table and fight for it,” Rand said.

He said except for the permanent fund and higher education cuts, House Democrats “are allowing nearly all of what (Bevin) wanted.”

At that point, the discussion ended.

They agreed to come back around 6 p.m. but ultimately that was extended to 8 p.m.
When lawmakers finally settled into their seats, reporters were asked to leave. They were allowed back in when the meeting broke up just after 10 p.m.

Earlier, following the afternoon session, Stumbo hinted they might be unable to reach a budget agreement.

When the late evening meeting concluded, Stumbo again said he feared the tone of the discussions hinted the two sides may not be able to agree.

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