General Assembly session: Money matters again

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By The Staff

Money - or the lack thereof - will be the primary focus of the next session of the state's General Assembly, said both representatives from Shelby County.

"It always is," state Sen. Gary Tapp said.

The session gets underway Tuesday and will wrap up April 15. This is the 60-day session. The legislature meets for 30 days in odd numbered years.

Gov. Steve Beshear's administration has estimated the state will fall about $300 million short of reaching a balance for the next fiscal year. He will offer a budget reduction plan today at 2 p.m. at the capitol. A state hiring freeze and across-the-board budget cuts are likely cures the Governor will propose. The state's Constitution requires a balanced budget.

State Rep. Brad Montell said the culprit in the state budget shortfall is overly optimistic revenue projections made last year before the start of the 2007-2008 fiscal year. The state projected revenue growth of 4 percent for the fiscal year while the government is realizing just under 1 percent. Medicaid costs, fuel prices and the housing slump have weakened the state's revenue stream.

Montell said the budget shortfall will help Beshear make a case for putting casino gambling on the ballot.

"But we're going to have to be cautious," Montell said.

Tapp, who chairs the Senate Licensing and Occupations Committee, said he believes the casino issue will go nowhere, especially in the state Senate, which is in the hands of Republicans. Tapp's committee would likely handle the issue. Tapp said he opposes casinos, but that "it's too early to tell what the bill will look like."

"If they put it on the ballot, gaming interests will have unlimited funds to back it and those opposed are not very well funded," Tapp said. "I'm not sure the average voter would get good information."

Both Tapp and Montell said state government needs to rely on curbing spending rather than raising money through taxes to keep the budget balanced.

Storm warning

Another financial cloud on the horizon, and growing bigger every year, is funding the state's pension program. According to Montell, the state faces a total of $24 million unfunded over the next 30 years, and costs are escalating faster than revenue growth. Montell said the legislature will need to keep its promise to current employees and retirees, but it must eventually find ways to cut retirement and pension costs for new employees.

"A lot depends on the stance the new Governor takes," Montell said. "Politically, it's a tough pill to swallow.

Besides dealing with the budget and the retirement system, lawmakers will consider hundreds of bills during the session, bills that deal with everything from law enforcement to animal control.

Montell has prefiled several bills, including five major pieces:

BRT 260 that would change breaking into a pharmacy to steal drugs from a Class D felony to a Class C felony.

BRT 456 and 457 that would allow tax deductions for volunteer firefighters, including a $2,000 deduction from state income tax and a refund of state fuels tax for a firefighter's vehicle that is used on runs.

BRT 238 that would require the state's animal shelters to spay/neuter any dog or cat released. The measure does not apply to animals in private shelters or those claimed by owners.

BRT 324 that would make Kentucky a long-term care partnership state, joining 20 other states in the nation. The law allows a policyholder of a long-term care plan to protect $1 in assets for each $1 in coverage. The goal is to get more citizens to buy long-term care plans, Montell said.

Tapp said he has few measures proposed for this session, "just some bills cleaning up language."

"Nine out of the 10 bills we don't need," Tapp said. "Sometimes we pass something just to pass something and we don't really need it."