GOP jockeys to take charge of federal stimulus money by putting screws to Beshear’s own budget

Published 4:08 pm Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Kentucky’s Republican lawmakers have doubled down on demanding that the Democratic governor obtain their approval before spending the massive federal pandemic relief headed to the state.

The lawmakers also started signaling their own priorities for allocating Kentucky’s share of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package — passed by congressional Democrats over united Republican opposition. State government in Kentucky is expected to eventually receive about $2.4 billion in new pandemic assistance.

Friction between Gov. Andy Beshear and GOP lawmakers extended to the budget when the legislature mostly held the line on spending, rejecting extra outlays Beshear wanted for education and other priorities. Now they’re trying to find a path forward on spending the federal relief.

One potential place for common ground is broadband — a priority for Beshear and lawmakers. The GOP-dominated legislature pushed through a bill Tuesday designating $250 million of the federal assistance to extend broadband service to the hardest-to-reach regions of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Republicans tucked language into another spending bill Tuesday putting more restrictions on Beshear in deciding how to spend the federal relief. Both Democrats and Republicans have said it offers a generational opportunity for bold, long-lasting investments. Any violation of the GOP-set condition would be a financially painful one.

Under the bill, the governor’s budget office would forfeit more than $900,000 into the state’s budget reserve fund if any of the federal funds are spent without the legislature’s permission.

It reinforced Republican conditions in the main budget measure, which asserted legislative authority over how federal relief will be spent. The bill didn’t specify where the aid would go.

Beshear used prior federal pandemic assistance to provide eviction relief funding, coronavirus testing, contact tracing and other programs, while lawmakers watched from the sidelines.

Republicans sent the spending bills to Beshear, passing them in time to retain their leverage to override any vetoes. Lawmakers headed home after a late night of work Tuesday to give the governor time to review stacks of bills passed in the final fast-paced days before their break. They’ll return to the Capitol on March 29 for two more days of work before the session ends.

If spending decisions aren’t made by then, it would require a special legislative session or a delay until the 2022 session to decide how to allocate the federal relief.

Republicans said they’re exercising their constitutional authority over state spending in demanding that the governor get their consent before federal funds are allocated.

“The intent is simply to make sure the governor works within the constitutional confines of drawing moneys only when approved by the General Assembly,” said Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate budget committee. “It’s just a statement that we expect to be worked with.”

Democratic Sen. Reginald Thomas said the provision would tie the governor’s hands.

“Once this session ends, then we’re done unless we’re called back into session by the governor,” he said. “But the needs of this state go forward.”

Beshear said he hopes an agreement can be reached on how to spend at least significant amounts of the federal money before the session ends. Investments in school construction, broadband expansion and water and sewer projects would create thousands of jobs, he said.

“That is exactly what the doctor ordered in making sure that our recession is short, that our people get to work and that we jump-start our economy,” the governor said this week.

Lawmakers were already in budget negotiations when they found out about the scope of the federal aid. They say they’re awaiting guidance on how they can use the federal money.

Beshear and Republican Senate President Robert Stivers have struck similar tones in discussing overall strategy in investing the money.

“We need to think big and we need to think bold,” Stivers said.

Republican lawmakers took a big first step with the $250 million of federal money they designated for expanded broadband. Lawmakers had discussed putting hundreds of millions of state funds into broadband expansion, but then found out part of the federal aid can be used for that purpose.

The bill stipulates no more than $50 million of the $250 million be spent before April 2022. Republican Sen. David Givens said that will start to “plant the seed” while giving lawmakers more time for review.