- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - House and Senate leaders clashed over funding for colleges and public pensions on Monday, with neither side willing to blink as the top Democratic leader in the House warned of a stalemate that could lead to a partial shutdown of state government.

The Kentucky House of Representatives and the Senate have both passed different versions of the state’s two-year state spending plan of more than $65 billion. Leaders of the two chambers had hoped to get a deal by midnight Monday to preserve their ability to override any potential vetoes by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. But lawmakers broke off talks shortly after 10 p.m. with plans to resume Tuesday.

“We’re getting farther and farther apart,” Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said. “I think probably the more the governor meets with the Senate, the farther apart we get.”

Lawmakers met secretly in the morning and late into the evening. At one point, both sides expressed optimism about reaching an agreement. But Stumbo said the tone of the negotiations changed such that he did not believe the two sides would reach an agreement at all.

If lawmakers do not pass a budget, the governor would have to call for an expensive special session to pass one before July 1.

Without a legislatively enacted budget, Stumbo said, most areas of state government would shut down. Federally mandated programs, including Medicaid and K-12 education, would continue.

Both sides seemed far from an agreement as the talks ended Monday night.

“(Democrats) do not want to spend moneys in the creation of jobs. They do not want to use the money for shoring up our pension systems. And we think that is inherently wrong,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.

The two sides are separated by $300 million in state tax dollars for a budget of more than $21 billion. The House, which is controlled by Democrats, wants to spend that money on colleges and universities and K-12 education. The Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, wants to give nearly all of that money to the state’s public pension systems, which are among the worst-funded in the country and have an estimated debt of more than $30 billion.

Complicating matters Monday was the state court system. Chief Justice John Minton made a final plea to lawmakers for an additional $60 million to cover a projected shortfall in the state court system. Without the money, Minton said, 600 people would lose their jobs and another 17,000 facing criminal charges might have to go back to jail because there would be no one available to supervise them while they are awaiting trial.

House Democrats, after initially ignoring Minton’s pleas, changed their minds Monday and said they would support giving the court system an extra $60 million. But because lawmakers have already approved the judicial branch budget, the money would have to come from the executive branch, adding yet another pot of money for lawmakers to argue about.

Republicans accused Democrats of flip-flopping and blamed them for creating the court system’s deficit. Democrats noted that they were following the recommendation from the Republican governor, adding that they did not impose all of the cuts Bevin had suggested.

Bevin told reporters that “everything should be on the table.” He said it was good the two sides were still talking, calling it “cathartic.” He said it was Stumbo, not himself, who was hurting the process.

“The tenor, to the extent that it did change, was changed by him,” Bevin said. “He’s the only one party to this entire thing has made the insinuation that a budget is not likely to be reached.”

Stumbo said he has only spoken with the governor once during the legislative session. It was about a month ago, and they were discussing a series of special House elections that, if Republicans swept all four, would have wrested control of the House away from Democrats.

Democrats won three of the four elections, solidifying their majority.

“He told me he was going to beat me in the special elections,” Stumbo said. “We did win them. I guess that’s the reason we’re not talking anymore.”

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