Plan gives lawmakers authority over spending federal aid

Published 6:28 am Monday, March 15, 2021

Republican lawmakers unveiled a state budget plan Saturday that stakes out their authority over how Kentucky spends its next massive infusion of federal pandemic relief.

The spending proposal — the result negotiations led by House and Senate GOP leaders — is mostly a continuation of the current budget passed last year when COVID-19 was taking hold of the country.

Kentucky’s government is expected to receive about $2.4 billion in new pandemic federal aid, and the budget bill would give the GOP-dominated legislature “express authority” over how it’s spent.

That provision would rein in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who used previous federal pandemic assistance to provide eviction relief funding, coronavirus testing, contact tracing and other programs, while lawmakers watched from the sidelines.

The move by GOP lawmakers in Kentucky to assert authority over spending new federal assistance comes after congressional Republicans unanimously opposed the relief bill.

Senate budget committee Chairman Chris McDaniel said he hopes lawmakers have discussions with Beshear in coming days over how the next round of pandemic relief is used.

“Ultimately the governor is responsible to go out to execute on those things and certainly has a major seat at the table as we decide them, but constitutionally the legislature is who is charged with the oversight of the spending,” McDaniel said in an interview Saturday.

The provision applies to money that state government has flexibility in spending, the GOP senator said. It wouldn’t apply to federal aid allocated to city and county governments, he said.

Lawmakers have four days left in their 30-day session — this coming Monday and Tuesday, followed by two days in late March. Budget bills for the coming year, starting July 1, are expected to be voted on either Monday or Tuesday and then sent to Beshear.

The governor can make line-item vetoes in a budget bill, but Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers, easily giving them enough votes to override vetoes.

Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley said the governor has presented a “transformational plan” to provide relief to Kentuckians and create thousands of jobs by investing the federal assistance. The governor has had discussions with legislative leaders about his plan, she said.

“With our country in a recession, the governor does not believe we should be timid, but instead use these dollars to build the better Kentucky we all deserve,” she said in a statement Saturday.

In January, the governor proposed virus-related relief that included $220 million in aid for small businesses. Beshear’s proposed investments included one-time spending of $100 million for school renovations and construction and $50 million to expand broadband access. A House-initiated proposal calls for $250 million in state funding to extend broadband service to hard-to-reach areas.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have spoken about the unique opportunity offered by the massive federal aid to make meaningful investments for Kentucky.

“I want to see us investing in things that are good for the long term of the commonwealth,” McDaniel said. “Not just spend it because we’ve got it. But think about things that set Kentucky up for the next 25 and 30 years. And this is the kind of money that we can use to do that.”

If decisions on allocating the federal money aren’t made by the end of March, it could potentially lead to a special legislative session to distribute the funds.

Legislative leaders finalized their budget plans in private and revealed their proposals on the Legislative Research Commission website. The largely continuation budget offered by House and Senate Republican leaders is starkly different from the spending plan presented by Beshear.

Beshear proposed a $1,000 pay raise for public school teachers and classified staff such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors, and a 1% pay raise for state employees. The plan agreed to by GOP leaders doesn’t include across-the-board raises for teachers and most state employees. It targets raises for state police troopers, the state police crime lab and the medical examiners office.

Kentucky’s General Fund revenues have consistently run higher than a year ago, and the state is making progress in getting the COVID-19 vaccine into people’s arms. But GOP lawmakers have urged caution for the next budget, noting the influx of federal aid in the past year.

“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t give people false expectations that we would absolutely have an economic recovery from the pandemic in this period of time,” McDaniel said. “And while we’re certainly optimistic that will occur, we want to make that decision on the opposite side of all of this, rather than in anticipation of it.”