In Jan. 8 IssueBy Derek AaronTimes Journal Reporter
Kentucky lawmakers, including Russell County's Rep. Jeff Hoover, the House Republican leader, and veteran Sen.Vernie McGaha, return to Frankfort this week for the opening of the 2009 General Assembly and have the state's ailing budget, among other things, on the agenda.
"This week is just an organizational week where we elect party leaders," Hoover said. "We assign committees and make appointments to different task forces and those types of things."
Hoover said the legislature will then return to the state's capital the first Monday in February for 26 legislative days, or six and a half weeks.
"The primary issue that we'll have to deal with is the budget situation," he said. "Due to the downturn in the national economy we're feeling that at the state level as well."
McGaha also said the main topic on the drawing board would be the budget.
"We're going to try to do what we can to balance this thing out, as required by the Constitution," McGaha said.
In the 30-day session lawmakers will try and figure out how to deal with a projected $456 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that ends June 30 and the budget crisis that could loom into the next fiscal year.
"That ($456 million) is a very fluid number and is probably the most pessimistic outlook but it is still a significant problem," Hoover said. "We've got to look and see what can be cut between now and July 1, if anything, and what revenue measures that are politically acceptable, just a whole lot of tough decisions that concern the budget."
McGaha said it would be no easy task to come up with a half a billion dollars to mend the state's budget woes but with the overall budget being around $19 billion, it is not as big a number as it may seem.
"We are, in fact, in better shape than a lot of states at this point," the senator said. McGaha said he hoped there would be no new taxes burdening Russell Countians.
Gov. Steve Beshear recently presented budget proposal for state lawmakers to consider.
Thus far, the governor has proposed raising the state's cigarette tax from 30 cents per pack to $1 per pack as well as shifting money from the state's rainy day fund to balance this year's budget, giving state employees three unpaid furlough days and cutting most government agencies by 4 percent, according to various state media outlets.
"The governor has done what he should do as the leader of this state and the chief executive officer of this state," Hoover said. "He has looked at the situation and presented a proposal that he believes can solve our immediate problem through July 1 with regards to the budget."
Politically, some of that proposal is not acceptable to the majority of lawmakers, according to Hoover. McGaha agreed, saying it was dangerous to dip funds out of the rainy day fund as it is used to pay expenses that were not budgeted for, such as a natural disaster or something the like.
The state senator said he also disagreed with the idea of a cigarette tax and said if there is a tax enacted, it should be one that affects everybody and not one that singles out a specific group, in this case tobacco users.
"It would be the same as only taxing people who wore glasses or drove Chevrolet trucks," McGaha said. "It should not involve targeting just one group of people."
Hoover said it would take some time to figure out the solution to the budget shortfall.
"What we have to do is scour the budget, see what we can do, even if it is just suspending certain expenditures for a two-year period or a 12 month period," Hoover said.
Hoover said debate and discussion and the political process would now take place on the issue in hopes of a better solution for the state.
He said it seems pretty clear to him that Congress and President-Elect Barack Obama are intent on some type of federal aid or stimulus package for the states.
"We don't know what that is going to consist of or how much money is going to be available to the states or if there will be any conditions to it," Hoover said. "We don't want to take too drastic of measures and then get a federal stimulus package that would more than offset the reductions that are needed."
Hoover said there were issues with direct relationship to the budget that would also be looked at during the session such as Medicaid eligibility, the state's correctional system and education issues.
"We have more people incarcerated, per capita, than any other state in the country," Hoover said. "In the past three years our incarceration rate has risen faster than any state so we have to look at alternatives to incarceration, whether that be treatment programs for drug offenders or other things."
Hoover said 80 percent of the state's budget is made up of Medicaid, corrections and education.
"Any time you start talking about making improvements in education, be it secondary or post-secondary, or if you talk about correction issues they are all budget matters and concerns."
Hoover said the most important thing this session of the General Assembly could do is to address the budget shortfall.
Tuesday, Hoover was re-elected as minority leader to the House GOP as well.
In other news, the House Democrats chose their speaker for the next two years when they selected Rep. Greg Stumbo, a one-time House majority floor leader and former state attorney general over longtime speaker Jody Richards of Bowling Green. The surprise speaker vote came Tuesday afternoon after Hoover had already recorded his historic 5th term as Republican floor leader.
"I have a good working relationship with both of them," Hoover said. "And I hope to continue that in the future."