COVID-19’s spread, which doesn’t stop for anyone or anything — including for legislators’ constitutional duty to pass a budget determining how state revenues will be spent — is forcing a very different spending plan than the one envisioned by many when this General Assembly session began.
This isn’t all bad news for taxpayers who were largely spared the type of pre-COVID-19 spending-and-taxing bonanza envisioned by some politicians.
Gone is a planned increase in fuel taxes or any hope of removing constitutional barriers to local governments adding to taxpayers’ burdens.
Missing are raises for teachers, state employees and social workers, which were originally in Gov. Andy Beshear’s budget proposal to the legislature this year.
Still, the $11.6 billion spending plan for the next budget year, which begins on July 1 and now awaits Beshear’s signature, isn’t truly an austere plan, though some in Frankfort would have you believe otherwise.
Rather, it simply spends about the same as last year’s budget.
While House leaders made the right decision to help protect members from the coronavirus scourge by allowing them to vote remotely and thus practice social distancing, they made indefensible spending decisions even when factoring in the arrival of COVID-19.
They apparently felt the health crisis could provide political cover to reduce spending for critically important areas involving public safety and students while funding disastrous and failed projects like Kentucky Wired, the broadband boondoggle ripped to shreds by State Auditor Mike Harmon.
Perhaps the worst of it is that the House Republican majority actually reduced spending in the final version of the budget on state police, corrections and the SEEK funding, which are the dollars directly tied to public-school students, compared to what they proposed in their original budget proposal filed in January.
Yet, spending wasn’t reduced for Kentucky Wired, which — while state police saw a $12 million reduction from the earlier GOP plan — will get a whopping and wasteful $46 million despite the Senate’s attempt to limit the program’s funding to $12 million.
This is in addition to earlier-passed legislation forcing taxpayers to loan $35 million to the University of Louisville to bail out ailing Jewish Hospital.
Which is worse — reducing spending for prisons, state police and students while propping up a failed and costly government-owned broadband network, or cutting dollars for those critical areas while loaning money to a cash-flush university to bail out a single urban hospital despite many ailing rural medical facilities across the commonwealth?
It’s bad enough the loan is partially forgivable but even shoddier that some politicians apparently hope for a political mask made of COVID-19 while increasing our state’s debt burden.
Such a covering would be much-more righteously used to cut spending for — instead of justifying funding of — boondoggles and pet projects or otherwise unwarranted uses of taxpayer dollars.
Beshear, a Democrat, could set the example for Republican legislative leaders by using the crisis as cover to forego his own crown jewels of giving teachers a raise and spending more on public education.
We’ll see what the governor does with this budget.
He can accept or veto it entirely or parts of it, which legislators can override in the two days they’ve reserved to come back and finish their work in mid-April.
Beshear said in the beginning days of the coronavirus crisis that he’s “done with politics” and is focused on making decisions “that if you were viewing them from a political sense would be really unpopular every day.”
Along with quarantining the state, shutting down businesses and affecting Kentuckians’ livelihood, wouldn’t such decisions also involve ensuring that financial resources — scarcer and more precious than ever — be spent more carefully than ever before?
Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @bipps on Twitter.