Wednesday, April 14, 2004

No deal, no budget

Legislature's failure stymies local projects

By Patrick Crowley, The Cincinnati Enquirer
and the Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Using words such as "tragedy" and "sickening," Northern Kentucky lawmakers fumed Tuesday that it appeared the General Assembly would adjourn without passing a state budget.

The impasse will delay construction of Northern Kentucky University's $48 million arena by at least a year and rattle the public's confidence in the ability of the legislature to do its job, the lawmakers said.

"It's sickening," said Rep. Charlie Walton, R-Florence, who is running for a state Senate seat in the May GOP primary. "We are down here for 60 days doing the people's business and one or two people bring the whole process down."

Walton put much of the blame on Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, claiming the Senate leader would not compromise with Democratic leaders.

"The governor (Ernie Fletcher) wanted a budget, and Republicans and Democrats in the House wanted a budget," Walton said. "We were willing to work and compromise but there are people who say, 'Our way or no way.' And there are too many important issues - education, health care, mental health, roads, building projects - that need to be accomplished to play a game of staring people down."

Chances of passing a budget crumbled when the Senate convened Tuesday, said House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green.

House Democrats were hoping the Senate would postpone its final day in session to give more time for negotiations. The House and Senate had been at a budgetary impasse since last week.

"The first official time we knew it was dead was when we saw the Senate gavel in," Richards said Tuesday. "And that had been the thing we had been dreading."

With no budget, Fletcher's office will have to devise a spending plan that continues most funding of state services and operations at existing levels.

That means the state will be unable to borrow money to build projects such as NKU's arena and a $10 million nursing school expansion at Gateway Community and Technical College in Edgewood, said Rep. Jon Draud, R-Edgewood.

NKU will also be prevented from borrowing money to build a $40 million student union and a $9 million parking garage because it needed approval in the budget to do so, Draud said.

Unless Fletcher calls a special legislative session - which he has said he will not do - spending on those and other projects will likely have to wait until next year, he said.

"It's a tragedy, especially for Northern Kentucky University," said Draud, a long-time advocate or funding the on-campus NKU arena. "People have been working on getting funding for the arena for 20 years. We have the governor on board, we got the project in the budget and we can't get it done.

"This just delays the process considerably," he said. "My own personal observation is we've just got terrible leadership on both sides of the aisle. People are not willing to sit down and compromise. They're more interested in playing games instead of doing the people's business.

"It's disgraceful."

The 2002 General Assembly also failed to pass a budget.

Tuesday was the last scheduled workday for the legislature, which has a constitutional deadline to finish its work by Thursday.

Fletcher's proposal to overhaul the state's tax code has been the major sticking point between budget negotiators.

Fletcher's "revenue neutral" plan includes a series of tax increases and cuts. Among other things, it would raise taxes on alcohol, tobacco and satellite TV service. Some low-income households would be relieved of state income tax. More corporations would be eligible for taxation, but at a lower rate.


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