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Stumbo floats education proposal

By BRUCE SCHREINERAssociated Press

FRANKFORT - House Speaker Greg Stumbo on Friday floated the idea of a constitutional amendment that would let Kentucky voters decide if they want to raise the statewide sales tax to generate more revenue for schools.

Stumbo said the proposal still being formulated would set up an Educational Excellence Trust Fund. It's a new twist to the debate over education funding, looming as a key issue in the 2014 General Assembly session that starts Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters, Stumbo raised the idea of letting voters decide whether to add 1 cent to the state sales tax rate to generate money for the trust fund. He said the increase would generate about $500 million a year.

If lawmakers approved the proposal, it would be placed on the ballot for voters to ratify or reject in November.

"There seems to be a trend, ... legislators want to see people vote on things," he said.

The idea drew criticism from Senate President Robert Stivers, lessening its prospects in the Republican-led Senate.

"This seems to be a typical ploy of his party," he said. "They just think throwing money at an issue is the solution."

Stivers, R-Manchester, said the education debate should include efforts to improve performance in elementary and secondary schools, especially among failing schools. Charter schools were among the ideas he touted.

Gov. Steve Beshear has said he wants more money appropriated for public schools in the next two-year budget cycle, and that he's willing to propose unspecified budget cuts to free up money for education. Beshear will present his budget proposal later this month, the starting point for lawmakers in crafting a budget for the two years beginning July 1.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has warned that school districts will have to cut teachers and teaching assistants if lawmakers fail to restore recessionary school funding cuts. The Department of Education has asked lawmakers for an additional $336 million to restore funding to pre-recession levels.

The state's top economists predict General Fund revenue will grow by nearly $500 million in the next two-year budget cycle. Obligations to shore up the government pension system will devour much of the additional revenue projected.

Meanwhile, local government leaders are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would give Kentucky cities and counties the authority to impose a local sales tax. Supporters of the local-option sales tax say it's necessary to raise money for local projects when state funding is unavailable.

Stumbo said he doesn't disagree with the local-option sales tax in principle, and didn't rule out putting multiple tax-related proposals on the ballot for voters to decide. But said he was approaching the issue from a statewide perspective.

"If the large metropolitan areas ... add a penny for infrastructure in their particular areas that doesn't reach into the state, how's the state ever going to raise the sales tax at any point in the future? It's probably not going to happen," he said.

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