After 15 rounds of state budget cuts through the recession and recovery, the foundation of Kentucky’s economy—our schools, higher education systems, health services and more—have been significantly weakened.
But final deliberations on the budget will include consideration of even deeper cuts to the services that protect and propel our Commonwealth. Moving into the final days of the 2016 General Assembly, lawmakers must salvage a budget that does the least harm to our quality of life.
Let’s take college affordability as an example. If the proposed nine percent budget cuts go through, Kentucky’s public colleges and universities will have been cut by over a third in the decade between 2008 and 2018. That inevitably leads to higher tuition and student loan debt, which keeps students from graduating and makes it harder for Kentuckians to buy a home, start a business or save for retirement after college.
At the same time, potentially on the chopping block is $57 million in need-based college aid programs, as well as a scholarship proposed in the House that would make community college free for full-time, traditional students. These moves would strip opportunity away from Kentuckians, since ample research shows financial barriers are the biggest impediment to completing a degree.
College affordability is just one of many ways more budget cuts will hold the Commonwealth back. Cuts to Family Resource and Youth Services Centers will make it harder for schools to help struggling students. Reversing improvements to preschool and the Child Care Assistance Program will keep more parents from working, and will mean fewer kids get a strong start in life. Taking money away from behavioral health and programs that safeguard the air and water won’t make Kentuckians healthier.
Systems of justice and public protection we take for granted are at risk of being undermined. The budgets for the Attorney General, the State Auditor, Board of Elections, public defenders and the court system all face potential deep cuts just to name a few.
Though their versions have slight differences, both the House and Senate budgets make big new contributions to our state workers’ and teachers’ pension systems, which would get us on the path to solvency for the debt we owe those plans. Leaders of both chambers are to be applauded for taking the necessary steps to address that problem.
But the big remaining question concerns the rest of the budget and whether to put aside funds or put them to work. While some new savings are appropriate, we shouldn’t let hundreds of millions of extra dollars sit idle while deeply cutting the education, health and other services we know have a strong return on investment. Doing so hurts our quality of life, and by damaging our economy is counterproductive to paying back the debt we owe over time.
We do have to get our financial house in order and more actions will need to be taken than are possible this session—particularly the need to clean up the tax code to generate new revenue.
But the first step is to pass a budget this session that makes the responsible payments on our pension liabilities while doing everything we can to limit harm to the budgetary investments so critical to the future of our Commonwealth.
This column first appeared in the Courier-Journal on March 25, 2016.