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FRANKFORT - While several issues remain unresolved, the General Assembly completed its biggest task early last week when it overwhelmingly approved a budget to run state government for the next two years.
In many ways, this legislation mirrors the proposal the House voted for last month. It gives our elementary and secondary schools, for example, their first real increase since 2008. There is also significantly more revenue for such things as textbooks, school safety measures and teacher development.
There will be a wave of new construction projects on our college campuses, both at the university level and on many of our KCTCS campuses.
Speaking of college, high school students will see no reduction in the money they earn in the KEES program, which uses the state's lottery proceeds to provide scholarships for good grades. There is also more money for the other two lottery-based financial aid programs.
The budget provides raises for state and school employees alike, and it also appropriates the necessary funding for the state employee retirement system, which is an important step toward paying down its long-term liability.
Our children will benefit from an increase in preschool eligibility in the budget's second year, and there is also nearly $100 million for a childcare-assistance program that unfortunately suffered cuts last year.
When it comes to health and human services, the budget adds 1,200 new slots to three programs that treat those with intellectual disabilities, and it gives our school family resource centers $2 million more over the next two years. Domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers will get $500,000 apiece in new money during the same timeframe.
Another budget highlight includes $30 million for a new broadband-Internet project that will increase access to this service. It will be paired with $40 million in federal and private funding.
Our state parks, meanwhile, will get $4 million extra a year for maintenance.
The Governor's Scholars Program and the Governor's School for the Arts - which do so much for our brightest high school students - will get 50 new slots apiece; and the Gatton Academy at Western Kentucky University will add 80 more slots to what Newsweek has twice called the best high school in the nation. This school puts dozens of high school juniors and seniors from across in the commonwealth in a college-like setting.
As much as the budget accomplishes, it is important to note that it comes in the wake of the toughest recession most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Even with moderate growth projected for the next two years, many agencies will still be cut by five percent to ensure education gets the increases it needs. Over the last six years, the state has reduced spending by a combined $1.6 billion.
However, I think this budget represents a positive step forward in many areas, and it has drawn support from education and human-service advocates.
For now, the General Assembly is on a brief recess to give the governor time to consider whether to sign legislation into law or veto it. The other legislators and I will return on April 14 to complete the session.
In addition to deciding what to do with any vetoes, should they occur, we will almost certainly vote for other legislation. That includes passing the state's road plan as well finalizing bills designed to tackle an epidemic of heroin abuse and to improve our juvenile justice system.
I will cover those issues as well as other legislation in a future column. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to let me know your views or concerns. You can reach me at Room 329G, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or Terry.Mills@lrc.ky.gov<mail.
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.