FRANKFORT - Democrats in control of the Kentucky House passed a $20 billion budget plan Thursday evening over Republican objections, closely following the governor's recommendations in putting forth their spending priorities for the next two years.
Issues wrangled over during the heated three-hour-plus debate could extend into the fall campaign, when the GOP makes a push to win control of the House.
Next up, the Republican-led state Senate will put its imprint on the two-year budget plan. The spending plan ultimately will wind up in a House-Senate conference committee, which will try to iron out differences in the waning days of the 60-day General Assembly session, which ends in mid-April.
The House version backed pumping more money into the state's main funding formula for kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. It proposes more money for textbooks and preschools but at lower amounts than Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear recommended.
The House proposal includes pay raises for state employees, teachers and other school workers. There's also funding to hire more social workers.
"I believe (with) this budget, and a yes vote on this budget, today you can go home and say that we have done some good things and that we are changing peoples' lives," said House Appropriations and Revenue Committee Chairman Rick Rand, D-Bedford.
Republicans argued that the plan spends too much and saddles the state with heavier bond payments to finance a multitude of new projects.
Republican Rep. Jim DeCesare criticized the spending plan as unrealistic, calling it "more of a wish list than a budget."
He said the added bond payments resulting from the measure would loom as a burden for "those who have to pay the bill down the road."
Democratic Rep. John Will Stacy defended the House budget and accused Republicans of criticizing it without offering ideas of their own. Stacy said the spending plan would help improve schools and the bonded projects would stimulate jobs.
The state's main budget bill for the two years beginning July 1 passed 53-46 on a near party-line vote.
In a rarity, work on setting state spending priorities was overshadowed by another issue. Throughout the debate, Republicans and Democrats sparred over the governor's decisions to expand the state's Medicaid program and to open a health insurance marketplace as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.
As for the budget, the House plan would cut funding of many state agencies by 5 percent, as Beshear recommended, to free up money for education.
The House also retained the governor's proposed 2.5 percent cut in operating funds for universities and community and technical colleges. It retains the governor's proposals for bond-funded construction projects for the universities and colleges.
The House's version calls for a $13 million increase in each of the two years for pre-school services. Beshear proposed adding $18 million per year.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers worried the increase in the state funding formula for elementary and secondary schools wouldn't be enough for school districts to cover the pay raises for employees. Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, responded that the budget gives local school leaders the flexibility to shift other funds to ensure all school personnel get the raises.
Some lawmakers complained that college students and their families would end up paying higher fees and tuition, due to the proposed spending cuts for higher education and ramped up construction on campuses.
"We continue to cut, but yet we've got all of these projects and buildings," said House GOP Floor Leader Jeff Hoover.
A proposed new student fee to help finance construction projects at the state's two-year schools drew the ire of some lawmakers. They said the proposed fee, which eventually would reach $8 per credit hour, would be a hardship for students in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
Democratic Rep. Joni Jenkins noted that donations were collected in December for financially struggling students at a two-year college in Louisville. Those students were in need of things like toilet paper and shampoo, she said.
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