Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Parties use budget bill as weapon

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Legislation for the state budget has become a strategic weapon, a tool for leverage, in an escalating battle for supremacy in the General Assembly.

The parties in power - Republicans in the Senate, Democrats in the House - guard the weapon jealously. In both chambers, the opposition minority is denied more than token input. Opposition amendments are not allowed.

The House and Senate called it quits a week ago, unable or unwilling to compromise on a budget bill.

The hang-up was not the mundane division and dispersal of money for the new biennium, which begins July 1. It was that the Senate's budget version, which Republican leaders kept under wraps until Day 57 of the 60-day session, contained a surprise - Gov. Ernie Fletcher's proposed tax plan.

Fletcher's plan was a combination of tax cuts and tax increases - cuts on businesses and personal income, and increases mainly on consumer products such as cigarettes, beer, liquor and wine and on satellite television services.

The plan was introduced in the House as a separate bill. The House's Democratic leadership suppressed it, so Senate Republicans tried to force it into the budget.

The precedent was set in 2002. The Senate held out for a budget that would do away with public financing of gubernatorial campaigns - a system that had been designed to make candidates accept spending limits and which handcuffed Republicans, who could raise more money.

Democrats refused. No budget was passed, and then-Gov. Paul Patton ran the state for nine months on an "executive spending plan."

But Republicans got an issue - "welfare for politicians" - and eventually got their way.

Now it's a legislative election year. The GOP is bent on gaining control of the House and completing its sweep. Knowing that, House Democratic leaders were determined to avoid a vote on Fletcher's tax plan, which they began calling "the Republican tax increase."

Fletcher, Senate President David Williams and other Republicans have been lashing the Democrats, especially House Speaker Jody Richards, as obstructionists. Fletcher said he intended to press that message far and wide. "The bottom line is, they voted against jobs for Kentucky," he said.

At the same time, Democrats have the Senate on record as voting for the tax plan. "I'm sure there will be lots of finger pointing on both sides," said Democratic Sen. Ed Worley of Richmond, the Senate minority leader. "But in the end, Democrats would not say 'yes' to the governor's tax increase."

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