by Nick Storm – Kentucky’s legislature faces the tough task of balancing a $20 billion budget this legislative session. With poor health rankings and struggling pensions the need couldn’t be greater, but lawmakers are off to a slow start and the cost is adding up for taxpayers.
On Tuesday the schedule had been cleared as lawmakers returned to Frankfort after the holiday.
At 3 p.m. Tuesday a handful of state Senate lawmakers heard testimony in a committee before clocking in on the Senate floor for about an hour of work in the upper chamber — including introductions of guests and eventually voting on three bills.
The House wasn’t much better, gaveling in at 4:18 p.m. and hearing their first bill ten minutes later before adjourning the day’s work at 5 p.m.
At the beginning of week three the House of Representatives has passed three bills, including the measure voted out on Tuesday. In the Senate they’ve passed six bills counting the three pieces of legislation passed on day 10 of the session.
While individual budgets from each chamber come after Gov. Matt Bevin’s budget address Jan. 26, lawmakers are moving without a point of reference with Bevin opting against having a state of the commonwealth address. The newly elected Republican will deliver a state of the budget address, where he will outline his budget priorities.
Bevin has told the media to prepare for an austere budget, likely signaling that some government agencies and programs will have their budgets reduced.
Uncertainty and Politics Breeds Slow Progress
Despite what lawmakers say, politics are likely playing a role in the slow pace.
The candidate filing deadline is Jan. 26 — tough votes could mean a primary challenge back home for incumbent lawmakers. Control of the House is essentially up for grabs in four special elections to be held on March 8 with Democrats maintaining a 50-46 majority in the chamber.
The uncertainty in the chambers means many lawmakers are hesitant to stick their necks out, but the financials for holding a session come to taxpayers whether it’s an easy day or a tough one.
Currently the state pays $67,957.90 per day of the General Assembly, according to the Legislative Research Commission. For a 60-day budget session that drives the cost to over $4 million.
Lawmakers typically come to work in the chambers at 4 p.m. eastern time on Monday, legislators work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with committee meetings in the morning and chambers in the afternoon. During the beginning of the session, rank-and-file members will generally go home before noon on Friday — session begins at 9 a.m., so lawmakers living outside of the golden triangle can make it home for the weekend.
Lawmakers are paid differently based on their position within the General Assembly. Currently, the House speaker and Senate president earn the most at $235.57 per day, and floor leaders earn $10 less per day at $225.62.
Other members of House and Senate leadership earn $216.88 per day. All other rank-and-file, non-leadership members earn $188.22 per working day, including work outside of the regular session. Committee chairs earn an additional $18.71 per day of work.
On top of their pay, lawmakers receive $1,788.51 in monthly expenses and $141.90 in daily expenses.
Taking a closer look at the daily expenses, on Tuesday lawmakers in committee and in chambers worked about two hours — not counting any constituent services — and are able to be reimbursed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When you consider the highest cost of a meal at one of Frankfort’s nicest restaurants is $38 for an entree — cast iron ribeye with Parmesan herb mash potatoes, garlic onion jam and henry bain sauce at Serafini — that $141.90 daily expenses rate could seem rather high, especially on days like Tuesday or most Fridays when they put in a few hours of work.
Most of the ideas discussed in the next 50 days of the legislative session will have been discussed before January via interim committee meetings, caucus retreats and other forums, but House and Senate leadership will likely drag their feet as they await members willing to vote on tough issues or the outcomes of special elections.
No matter which political party controls the halls of the Capitol, the issues of politics will remain. But expecting it to occur and allowing it to occur are two separate things.
Recent sessions have proved that lawmakers are more than willing to do the hard work and long days and earn that $67,957.90 taxpayers pay them per day, but in 60-day budget sessions, there’s room for lawmakers to start slower.
It’s just at the expense of the taxpayer.