Thursday, March 22, 2007

Government Limiting… Themselves

From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

The political deadlock between the House and Senate is threatening continued operations at six state agencies that have requested a total of $23 million for this fiscal year, officials said.

Kentucky State Police would pull cruisers off the highways if they don't get a $3.3 million infusion, and the prison system would implement a hiring freeze and cut services if it doesn't receive an additional $10.4 million, said Gen. Norman Arflack, the Justice Cabinet secretary. "If we don't have the money, we can't pay the bills. And if we can't pay the bills, those people we do business with in some situations won't provide the supplies and services we need," he said.

The agency funding issue became entangled in a bigger battle between the House and Senate last week over proposals to reform the state pension system and fund projects the governor vetoed last year.

"Until the commitment is upheld on House Bill 1 (funding for the vetoed projects), I don't know that we're ever going to be in a position to talk about any of those things," said House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook. Senate leadership said it was unwilling to move on HB 1 unless the House supported a plan to borrow more than $800 million to stabilize the state-employee and teacher pension systems and cut benefits for future state employees.

House leaders said the Senate reneged on its agreement to fund the vetoed projects; Senate leaders said the projects seem to be the House's only priority. "I find it quite interesting that Rep. Adkins said they weren't interested in stuff … but it appears that stuff is what is motivating them rather than substantive needs that we are mandated and dictated by the state and federal governments to provide," said Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he was unaware that the state agencies were facing dire needs for operating funds. "My understanding is they have not made that case to the House," he said. "They may say they have, but … they certainly haven't made it with me, and I would be fairly important in the equation. It's my guess they have not made that with our leadership."

Stivers said the Justice Cabinet sent letters to House and Senate leaders pleading its case, but Richards said a letter isn't sufficient. "They need to come and see us and talk about the situation," Richards said.

State Budget Director Brad Cowgill said that in January he briefed leaders of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee. Agency officials said the shortfalls are a combined result of higher-than-expected costs, lower-than-expected revenue and lower-than-requested allocations in the last budget cycle.

The prison system, for example, received 2 percent less than what it requested last year. Arflack said that, combined with higher-than-anticipated medical expenses and fuel costs, leaves the agency with a $10.4 million shortfall. Medical expenses also played a role in cost overruns at the Juvenile Justice Department, which has asked for $2.7 million more for this fiscal year, which ends June 30. Arflack said the state police have been hit hard by fuel costs, which were projected to be an average of $2.08 per gallon and are coming in at about $2.22 per gallon. "The motor-fuel costs were based on a lower dollar amount than what we actually had to pay," he said.

Other agencies experiencing shortfalls include: The Parks Department, which has asked for $4.5 million. Commerce Secretary George Ward said the shortfall is a result of increased utility and fuel costs, lower-than-expected revenue at parks and the elimination last year of the boat-launching fee, which generated about $1 million annually. Without the additional money, Ward said the department would begin closing facilities that don't bring in revenue.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has asked for another $2 million. Deputy Commissioner Marty Pinkston said the department was not adequately funded last year and was ordered by the legislature to hire another five or six field representatives. The department also has received less from the federal government than anticipated. Pinkston said he was unsure how the department would absorb the shortfall. The Commission on Human Rights, which has requested another $220,000. Executive Director Linda Strite Murnane said the shortfall is a result of a lower-than-requested budget allocation and lower-than-expected federal contributions. Murnane, a retired Air Force colonel, has waived her salary since February to make sure she doesn't have to lay off the five employees she hired after a blue ribbon panel recommended a staff expansion to address a backlog in cases.

Because of a Kentucky Supreme Court ruling in the wake of the two sessions in which the General Assembly did not pass a budget, the governor's office does not have the ability to address these issues without legislative approval, Cowgill said. "If we had the unilateral ability to take care of it, we would have," he said.

Deputy Budget Director John Hicks said the impact would go beyond hiring freezes and other cost-cutting measures. "Those won't be enough," he said. "Bills will go unpaid for a period of time."

The aforesaid is asinine. Police and prison funding endangered? Promptly, Kentucky politicians must awaken. They must compromise and complete the people’s business.

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