Frankfort is one of the most beautiful state capitals in our country and in many ways it is unique in its character and stature. However, Frankfort was surprisingly similar to other state capitals this year in that the primary topic of discussion was the state budget, and terms used to explain its fiscal woes may have just as easily been overheard in Tallahassee, Topeka or Trenton.
Perhaps hosting large fish in such a small pond inherently causes friction, but this year, midterm elections and national politics as well as a lack of money all played their part in making this a very rancorous session. State leaders gathered to discuss and address a budget shortfall spiraling past $1 billion for the first time in Kentucky’s history. This situation, which was precipitated by a national shift in economic fortunes, is now on the doorsteps of most state capitals across the nation.
Gov. Steve Beshear threw what many would compare to a passed ball when he unveiled a budget proposal that included an estimated $750 million in gaming revenue to stabilize the ailing biennial spending plan. In chorus, legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle balked at the governor’s plan and agreed that they would dig deep into the state’s beleaguered budget and come up with a compromise that would allow the commonwealth to continue on solid footing.
This task certainly proved to be more difficult than anyone could have predicted.
The House, always tasked with presenting a budget first, struggled mightily to prepare a budget devoid of the revenue assumed by the executive branch and without the usual blueprint provided by the governor. Its version of the budget included a mix of cuts to existing services and bonding for water, sewer and school projects and was hailed as a “jobs” bill by Speaker Greg Stumbo. This sparse budget was met with skepticism by business interests who took issue with the method by which those projects would be financed, and the Senate, in turn, abandoned the House’s plan. The Senate’s attempt at a state budget included even deeper cuts in services and was equally unacceptable to the House.
So we arrived post-session without a game plan for the next two years.
Leaders in both the House and Senate seem to have taken on the roles of national politicians who are engaged in high-stakes partisan and philosophical political battles that will undoubtedly shape the outcome of mid-term elections.
Senate President David Williams issued a statement recently that likened Gov. Beshear to President Obama, Rep. Stumbo to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and lauded the fact that there was no Harry Reid in the state Senate. However, Sen. Williams and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, could just as easily be compared if you play out this metaphor. The national political struggle to find commonality may be the ultimate reason why no compromise was found on the state fiscal plan.
A palpable sense of caution is in the air both nationally and in Frankfort. The anger and skepticism that has presented itself in the form of the tea party movement has put both Republicans and Democrats on guard. Action in these uncertain times has often been met with skepticism, and that makes moving the commonwealth forward more difficult. This challenging atmosphere may explain why this state is beginning to lose some of its top policy makers.
Several senior legislators decided to call it quits after this year. In a fiscal and political atmosphere where it is becoming more and more difficult to produce beneficial results for your constituents, it is not surprising that some have grown frustrated and are looking for new venues in which to serve.
There were few winners in the 2010 regular session. A special session costs taxpayers about $60,000 a day, and the governor has indicated he may call a special session to initiate a budget compromise in May. It is difficult to believe that this prospect will be met by the public with anything but disregard. Similar situations have caused governors and the legislature to rise to the challenge and above political sparring to find common ground.
There are special challenges to completing the unfinished business left behind in this session. It is going to take real leadership on all fronts to meet the challenges we face today – and success could be contingent on selective amnesia of the midterm elections and fantasies of Potomac River politics.