A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Kentucky is the Jack Benny of the states; tries to run the government on the cheap

Kentucky is forever trying to get by on the cheap, making it the Jack Benny of the 50 states.

You can bet that the only time the state will spend money to provide the sort of services necessary for the 21st Century is when it’s absolutely forced into a corner. Even then, like Benny when a robber threatened him with “Your money or your life,’’ it will offer a long, pregnant pause before responding, “I’m thinking it over.’’

Gov. Bevin

That in essence describes the current debate over the two-year state budget and tax bill passed by the 2018 General Assembly and ceremoniously vetoed by St. Matt the Divine, whose own alternative was considerably worse.

It’s the same old story, Kentucky needs money to provide necessary investments for the future but it doesn’t want to make the effort. It’s rather like what Twain said about the weather – everybody talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it.

It’s the same old story.

Back in the 1980s Kentucky had, with the possible exception of Mississippi, the nation’s worst educational system, with rankings of 49th and 50th across the board. It was an embarrassment, lawmakers knew it was a rotten system but for years they let it lay there like the proverbial dead opossum on the blacktop.

Gov. Martha Layne Collins and several legislators known as the Young Turks, all Democrats, led by Roger Noe of Harlan, endeavored to address the situation and managed to get some reforms passed in the mid-80s. Even then the system remained terribly shortchanged.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Franklin Circuit Judge Ray Corns, in a ruling later upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court, found that the system for funding the commonwealth’s public schools was inequitable and, therefore, unconstitutional. Only then, its hand forced, did the legislature act and the state’s educational system has improved considerably since.

That process established that Kentucky, and other states for that matter, had to make investments if it hoped to keep pace. Since then, of course, the commonwealth’s tax system has rotted on the vine and the legislature has done just enough to get by – if you consider something less than mediocrity getting by.

As a result, under both Democratic and Republican leadership, state pension costs ballooned and it became obvious to anyone with a lick of sense – a requirement that naturally excludes St. Matt the Divine from the discussion – that lawmakers would either have to raise taxes or gut the rest of state government to make up for a shortfall that reached billions of dollars.

The 2018 General Assembly did eventually raise some taxes but it failed to dig deeply enough and went about the task in the worst way imaginable – producing a ridiculous series of changes worked out behind closed doors by majority Republicans with no input from the public or opposition Democrats. The result was something that bears a greater resemblance to a Jackson Pollack painting than a well-considered policy statement. It happened in the wink of an eye during the session’s closing days, with scandalously little analysis or due consideration.

Of course it eschews any increase, even a modest one, in the state income tax rate in favor a scattershot approach that extends the sales tax to certain services and raises the cigarette tax, thus protecting the commonwealth’s wealthy residents who can afford to kick in a few extra bucks without endangering their box seats at Churchill Downs while dumping the load on the shoulders of the middle and lower classes whose campaign contributions remain negligible.

It is the very essence of an oligarchy and is chock full of rudimentary errors resulting from the haste and secrecy of the process. As the always reliable Joe Gerth points out in The Courier Journal (sans hyphen) pensioners under the old law didn’t have to pay taxes on the first $41,000 of income. As a result of a series of Rube Goldberg complications leading to laughable legislative ineptitude, they may now wind up paying the levy on the first penny.

St. Matt the Divine, having apparently determined that praying over the matter, like the shootings in Louisville’s West End, wasn’t going to get the job done, vetoed this horrible tax bill. Naturally he did for all the wrong reasons. His argument isn’t that it was incompetently managed and targeted the wrong people. In fact, Mad Matt maintains the package offered some “positive elements.’’ But he is looking for broader reform – in other words, the rich need more breaks – and overestimates how much dough it will bring in.

While he was at it, St. Matt vetoed the proposed two-year state budget, the whole kit and caboodle, insisting it is out of balance, a condition that wasn’t helped at all by vetoing the tax bill that was supposed to in part fund the package.

In the age old refrain that has followed Kentucky State government, the gov insisted the cupboard is bare and the commonwealth can’t afford the proposed outlays.

“Sure, it feels good,’’ he said. “Sure, it quiets people down. But the reality is the money’s not there and we’re kicking the can down the road. And that is not responsible.”

Listening to St. Matt talk about being “responsible’’ is kind of like attending a lecture on marital fidelity from the president of these United States. The gov has talked a good game about tax reform but his answer sheet is blank. His own proposed spending package was so bad that a parakeet would reject it as a birdcage liner. In addition to cutting an estimated 70 programs it shifted millions of dollars in transportation and health insurance costs to local school districts and killed a $16.7 million for textbooks and various instructional materials.

The legislature at least increased the state’s per pupil funding – it held steady under Bevin – and paid for the textbooks. It wasn’t the best budget in the world but Kentucky is simply incapable of producing the best budget in the world.

Now the legislature could ride in like the cavalry and overturn those vetoes, perhaps saving the commonwealth from a grueling special session to enact a funding and spending plan before the fiscal year ends on July 1. But if the past four months is a preface to the future what you’ll find is the legislature and St. Matt have taken up positions in that fine line of succession from the Keystone Kops to the Three Stooges to the present. In other words, things could always get worse.

Still, the coup de grace came when Bevin signed a terrible and unnecessary pension reform bill that has radicalized the commonwealth’s teachers, transforming them into the modern embodiment of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Under the law signed by St. Matt, new teachers will be eligible for retirement by age 65 instead of the current 60 and they will be pushed into a hybrid retirement plan that fails to guarantee the same level of benefits as a traditional pension. Current teachers will no longer be able to use their sick days to count toward their retirement eligibility.

The measure does little to address the real problem plaguing the pension system – the legislature has simply been shortchanging it for years. The answer seems simple – make the necessary payments, reduce the unfunded liability and everyone goes home happy.

That was addressed to some degree in the budget, which Mad Matt vetoed.

Welcome to Kentucky, friends.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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One Comment

  1. Judith Oetinger says:

    Thanks for articulating the mess of politics in this state of Kentucky. At least, translating the actions of our governor and the state legislature into “language” the common man can understand is most helpful. Whether people will read and make competent decisions when voting remains to be seen…

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