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What's going on in those secret budget discussions?

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute


The Bluegrass Institute

Lawmakers fulfilled their primary constitutional duty by agreeing on a $20.3 billion budget. Still, plenty of unanswered questions remain about Kentucky's budget process:

n Why don't the leaders in the House of Representatives give members more time to sufficiently consider their vote on the state budget?

"When there's doubt in my mind about what a budget contains, I tend to vote 'no,'" said Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, one of 11 legislators in the Kentucky House who voted against the new budget.

Considering that legislators' chief responsibility is to pass a budget, why is it that once again, the budget conference committee, which is comprised of representatives from both the House and Senate, pulled an all-nighter at the very end of the session when they have had several months to work on the task?

Fischer protested that the final budget draft worked out by the conference committee was made available for consideration "only about 30 minutes before we had to vote."

n If, as aphorist Mason Cooley said, "procrastination makes easy things hard and hard things harder," why not speed up the budget-deciding process?"

The primary responsibility for this problem lies at the feet of the Democratic leaders as the majority party in the House.

Isn't having the first quarter of the calendar year more than enough time to figure out how to get the budget done in a manner that allows members to cast an informed, conscientious vote?

Well of course it is.

I'm not pointing partisan fingers here.

The state's Democratic governor did his job by fulfilling his constitutional duty to submit a budget proposal to lawmakers toward the beginning of the session. If the House would have gone ahead and acted in a timely manner on the Republican Senate's version, then the bipartisan budget conference committee could have sufficient time to negotiate and get a final draft into the hands of the people's representatives for due consideration.

"It's not a good process," Fischer said. "They need to at least complete the budget draft with both houses reviewing it and then get it to us with at least two weeks left in the session so that negotiations can be completed in a timely manner and we can have a pretty good idea of what's in there."

That sounds reasonable to most Kentuckians. The problem is politics.

With the filing deadline for political opponents during this election not coming until the end of January - and especially with Democrats concerned about retaining control of the House - that party's leadership dragged its proverbial feet on the budget.

As a result, Fischer said he's "still not quite sure what the financial picture looks like."

He said he's still trying to get concrete information about the size of the state's debt ratio in the new budget.

"I think this budget takes it up to 6.75 percent, which is significantly above what the ratings agencies want to see," Fischer said. "We're the third-worst rated state as far as bond rating in the nation, and this could make the situation worse."

n Why are the most important decisions involving the state budget still made behind closed doors?

Both conservatives and big-spending leftists have expressed concerns about decisions made in this budget. Both should call for more transparency - when it matters, which is when the conference committee meets to hash out its final spending plan.

Progressives wonder how last-minute decisions were made to give tax breaks for certain industries while conservatives wonder if there was serious consideration given to the state's financial future.

If conference committee discussions related to the budget were done in the public's eye, we might not only get better answers to these questions, but better decisions might also be made with taxpayer dollars.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free-market think tank.

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