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EARLIER: Beshear proposes cigarette tax

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School cuts -- 2% -- not as bad as feared

By Nathan L. McBroom

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's plan to fix the $456.1 million hole in the state's budget includes raising taxes on tobacco, imposing a 3-day furlough on state workers and cutting 2 percent out of state education funds.

Beshear announced his proposal at a press conference on Thursday, and the plan could be adopted at the legislative session in January.

The cut in the budget for schools is significant, but it's about half of what each district had been told to expect.

Beshear's plan would increase the cigarette tax by 70 cents and double the tax rate on other tobacco products.

That would bring the tax on a pack of smokes up to $1, which is still below the national average.

Beshear's plan would also impliment something that has never been tried before – a statewide furlough plan for state workers. The furlough plan would require all state employees take three days of unpaid leave between now and the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2009.

Beshear said the furlough would stave off massive layoffs.

In a press release, Beshear said despite the shortfall in the budget, he did not want the nation’s current economic crisis to impede the state’s ability to provide quality education and medical coverage for those covered by Medicaid and other services.

"I cannot let our education, our health-care and our public safety systems suffer significantly more than they already have. Our future depends on our ability to build a competitive, innovative workforce, and our K-12 classrooms are the lifeblood of that mission," he said. "To gut education is to doom Kentucky to mediocrity for as long as we can imagine.

"Education is my top priority, and I believe it must be our state's top priority. We cannot sacrifice our future."

Though local educators aren't excited about the 2 percent cut, they know that it could have been worse.

James Neihof, Shelby County Schools Superintendent, said 2 percent less is better than 4.

“It could have been much worse for us,” he said.  

Late last month, Neihof received an email from State Education Commissioner Jon Draud that asked him to estimate how a 4-percent cut in the district's general budget would affect the quality of local education.

And though the cut is half as bad as expected, it will still bring pain locally.

The two percent cut will mean that $50,000 will need to disappear from the district's current budget if Beshear's proposal passes.

Neihof said that though none of the cuts would be made to classroom personnel, the district would be "immensely affected."

"Because of the value we place on instruction, none of the teaching or educational positions will be affected," he said. "But we will be taking a huge hit on the operations side."

That means that things such as roof repairs, regularly scheduled upgrades, new bus purchases and other facility purchases would be delayed or canceled.

As education cuts back, all other areas of state government – such as state agencies and cabinets from Energy and Environment to Tourism, Arts & Heritage, and Public Protection - would receive 4 percent less.

In addition, Gov. Beshear said a hike in the cigarette tax would also would help create a "healthier population and substantially decrease long-term health-care costs.”

Beshear's plan would keep the Support Education Excellence in Kentucky funds (SEEK) as they are.  

This budget proposal was announced just days after Beshear said he would take a 10 percent pay cut.