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Thu March 22, 2012
Senate Targets Lieutenant Governor's Housing Allowance
FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A bare-bones budget proposal approved by the Kentucky Senate late Thursday would cut spending in multiple ways, eliminating the lieutenant governor's housing allowance, taking away proposed scholarships for Appalachian college students, and scrapping cost-of-living increases in the monthly pension benefits of some 200,000 government retirees.
The Senate approved the two-year, $19.5 billion state budget late Thursday on a 32-4 vote.
The proposal would eliminate a $30,000-a-year appropriation to provide a housing allowance to Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson. He receives that in lieu of living in the mansion provided for him and his wife.
The budget measure now returns to the House for consideration. Some of the Senate's changes are expected to be contested in the House, which will lead to the appointment of negotiators to hammer out a final agreement.
"I know that in a multi-, multi-billion dollar budget, the housing allowance that we give to the lieutenant governor isn't a big thing," said Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville. "I know in the great scheme of things, that's an insignificant number, but the symbolism of that is important, and it is not insignificant."
Kentucky began paying a housing allowance to lieutenant governors more than a decade ago in a move intended to save money. Previously, lieutenant governors lived in a state-provided mansion in Frankfort.
Gov. Steve Beshear called for sharp cuts to most government agencies and programs when he initially presented his budget plan to lawmakers in January. Cutting Abramson's housing allowance wasn't included in his proposal or that of the House.
The Senate plan also strips a proposal to create the Kentucky Appalachian College Completion Program, which would provide grants of up to $6,000 a year to students attending a handful of private colleges in the mountain region. The cost would have been about $6.5 million over the next two years.
The proposal is a spinoff from an earlier recommendation to turn the private University of Pikeville into a public university. The aim was to boost the number of people in the mountain region with college degrees and spur the economy in central Appalachia. Widespread opposition led to that idea being withdrawn.
Those grants would have been paid for from revenue from an existing tax on mined coal.
The scholarships would be available to students who already have at least 60 college credits from a community college and then transfer to the University of Pikeville, Alice Lloyd College, Clear Creek Baptist Bible College, the University of the Cumberlands or Union College.
Former Gov. Paul Patton, now president at Pikeville and an architect of the scholarship plan, said he's hopeful it still will be approved this year.
"It would be pretty hard for me to figure out why it wouldn't, because there has been no opposition that I've heard about," Patton said.
The Senate budget maintains sharp cuts to most government agencies and programs that had been recommended by Beshear and included in the House budget.
Even the state and local government retirees would take hits to help balance the budget. The Senate and House erased proposed 1.5 percent cost-of-living increases in their pension checks.
The Senate proposal also cuts the amount of new debt in the budget to $391 million. That's $161 million less than the House had authorized and $577 million less than the governor authorized.
The House had proposed nearly $553 million in new debt, and the governor had proposed nearly $969 million.
Senate President David Williams said he considers that a major provision of the budget, one that needs to be preserved in upcoming negotiations between the Senate and House.
"The level of debt is a matter of concern to all Kentuckians, and it should be a concern," Williams told reporters.
Both the House and Senate endorsed Beshear's proposed tax amnesty plan that lawmakers believe could collect $55 million over the next two years. It would be the state's first offer of tax amnesty in a decade, and would forgive some penalties if people come forward and pay their taxes.
The Senate budget also calls on Beshear to reduce spending on state contracts by nearly $100 million over two years. It would keep more than $120 million in the Budget Reserve Trust Fund, better known as the Rainy Day Fund, and increase that to nearly $130 million by 2014.
The Senate also left a $4.2 million appropriation to the Attorney General's Office in place for expanding the state's prescription drug monitoring program. Both the Senate and House have been pushing measures aimed at cracking down on prescription drug abuse.
Painkillers have become a drug of choice in Kentucky. Abuse of them has been blamed for more than 80 overdose deaths a month in the state.