- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - House Democrats said Tuesday they likely will not approve $650 million worth of state spending cuts proposed by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, setting up a budget battle one month ahead of four special elections that could shift the balance of power in the legislature.

State economists now expect the state will have $900 million more to spend over the next two years than they had earlier predicted. That includes a projected $200 million surplus when the fiscal year ends on June 30. But ballooning pension debts and the ever increasing costs of health care in the state’s Medicaid system prompted Bevin to slash the budget by 4.5 percent this year and another 9 percent over the next two years.

“I think cutting, in a fiscal year where the budget is balanced and we know we’re going to have a $200 million surplus, that’s hard for me to understand,” Democratic House budget chairman Rick Rand said. He added that the committee would shrink Bevin’s cuts before sending the proposal on to the full House of Representatives.

“If the House Democrats want to oppose these necessary cuts, then their only alternatives are to raise taxes, make our debt problem worse or steal from pensions,” Bevin spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said.

Democrats have a 50-46 majority in the Kentucky House, which they have controlled for nearly a century. But the House has four vacant seats, and special elections to fill them are scheduled March 8. If Republicans win all four, they would share power with Democrats and potentially upend the budget negotiations.

Rand said the special elections would have no bearing on their budget process, promising to finish the House version of the budget by the end of February or the first week of March.

On Tuesday, Bevin’s budget director John Chilton outlined the proposal to the House budget committee and faced a barrage of questions about how the governor planned to cut the budget. Chilton said the cuts would be left to the cabinet secretaries who run the state agencies.

“We’re not going to accept that,” Rand said. “It just won’t work.”

The biggest gripes from Democrats were the lack of specifics. Bevin wants to support colleges and universities based on a set of criteria that would be developed later by Bevin’s administration and college presidents.

And he wants to borrow $100 million to spend on programs to train people to enter Kentucky’s changing workforce, but did not say what those programs are or how the money would be spent.

“Workforce development is the most important thing we can do in Kentucky,” Democratic Rep. Larry Clark of Louisville said, but he added: “I think you’re going to have to present to us a plan before we blindly give you $100 million.”

Other lawmakers were more willing to accept Bevin’s cuts. When Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear told lawmakers the cuts could cause him to lay off up to 20 prosecutors, Republican state Rep. Brad Montell of Shelbyville urged him to make the adjustments.

“We haven’t had any real leadership to address where our state was going in the area of pensions and then with the tremendous challenge we have in funding the increased cost of Medicaid,” Montell said in an apparent criticism of Beshear’s father, former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. “This governor has stepped up and said we have to make some tough decisions. We’ve got to right the ship.”

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