Senate’s budget lowers cuts to higher ed

After passionate discussion yesterday afternoon, the Kentucky Senate approved a budget that would reduce, but not eliminate, an across-the-board 12 percent budget cut proposed by Gov. Steve Beshear.

In a 32-2 vote yesterday, the Senate approved a $19 billion budget for the next two years. Under the plan produced by the Senate, UK would face a total budget cut of 6 percent, which includes a 3 percent cut already in effect for this fiscal year.

Unlike the House budget passed two weeks ago, the Senate’s budget does not include an increase in taxes on cigarettes or gas. The House’s call for a 25-cent increase on cigarettes and 1.5-cent increase per gallon of gas harms the state’s citizens, said Sen. Charlie Borders, R-Grayson.

“I think in times like this, people in the legislature need to act like households across the Commonwealth and be fiscally responsible, and not expect us to insult (Kentuckians) by presenting them with tax increases,” Borders said when he presented the budget to the full Senate after it passed the committee he chairs yesterday morning. “That’s what we do with the budget we present today.”

With no tax increases, the Senate budget relies on taking more money from Kentucky’s lottery system. In the first year, Kentucky would take $54.6 million and $55.6 million during the second year of the two-year budget cycle.

Borders said one way the lottery could reduce its expenses would be to cut advertising spending. But Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington, called increasing the state’s piece of lottery funds “smoke and mirrors” because if the lottery cuts advertising, it would see a decrease in profits.

Scorsone, who voted against the Senate budget, also criticized the Senate’s cuts in fields like education and health care as an alternative to increasing taxes.

“This is a cruel and callous budget,” Scorsone said during debate on the Senate floor yesterday afternoon. “This is a major retreat from our commitment to Kentuckians. We reached a fork in the road. We could’ve gone right. We could’ve gone left. And we retreated.”

The House and the Senate will negotiate to arrive at a compromise on the two different budget plans. Then the budget must receive the governor’s signature before it passes through the House and the Senate again for separate approval. The process is slated to be completed by April 15.

However, several senators alluded to the possibility of not completing the budget by the April deadline during debate on the Senate floor yesterday. If that happens, the General Assembly would enter into a special session and continue work.

UK’s tuition rates, which UK officials have said are contingent on the state’s budget, will be decided in April. Last month, UK President Lee Todd said UK could not guarantee a tuition increase of 10 percent or less if the state does not fully fund UK’s Top 20 Business Plan, which the pending budget does not. The plan calls for state appropriations to increase by $20 million each year.

It is still uncertain whether UK’s current staff hiring freeze will end if the final budget includes the restored funding, said university spokesman Jay Blanton.