Republican-Backed Budget Bill With Increased K-12 Funding Sent To Kentucky's Democratic Governor

Kentucky Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks to his fellow Senators during their session at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Kentucky Sen. Chris McDaniel speaks to his fellow Senators during their session at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Tuesday, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's legislature delivered on a new two-year state budget Thursday that would increase funding for K-12 schools as lawmakers accomplished their biggest responsibility of this year's legislative session.

The spending plan won final passage in the House and now heads to Gov. Andy Beshear, who has line-item veto authority over state budget bills. The Senate gave its approval late Wednesday as lawmakers hurried to finish work on the budget and many other issues before starting a two-week break.

The main budget measure represents the state’s signature policy document and completing the two-year budget was the biggest task for the GOP supermajority legislature when this year's session started in early January. The final version was the product of negotiating sessions by legislative leaders.

Later Thursday, lawmakers gave final passage to a separate spending bill tapping into the state’s massive budget reserves to make one-time investments, including in infrastructure and economic development.

During the debate on the state's main budget bill, much of the focus, as usual, was on education funding.

Per-pupil funding under SEEK — the state's main funding formula for public K-12 schools — would increase by more than 9% during the next two-year budget cycle.

“This is a solid budget,” Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said Wednesday night. "It is the best budget that has been proposed or passed by the General Assembly.”

Decisions on teacher pay raises would be left up to local school boards. Republican leaders said they hoped the influx of additional state funding would enable districts to award raises to teachers.

Republican Rep. Timmy Truett, a school principal, said Thursday that he had received upbeat assessments of the spending plan from a number of school superintendents

“They’re excited that with these significant increases, that they’re going to be able to maintain their staff and also give some sort of a raise,” he said during the House debate.

Critics of the spending plan said the legislature missed a prime opportunity — during a time of massive budget reserves — to award even more generous funding to K-12 schools. Democratic Rep. Adrielle Camuel said the funding levels in the bill would not tackle the shortage of classroom teachers.

“Without a dedicated raise for teachers and school employees, Kentucky school districts will still struggle to fill these vacancies,” she said.

The decision to leave those salary decisions up to local schools boards reflected an ongoing philosophical difference between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. The governor, who won reelection last year, proposed an 11% pay raise for teachers and all other public school employees.

Beshear has said an 11% raise would lift Kentucky to the middle of the pack nationally in average teacher starting pay and average teacher pay. The state now ranks near the bottom in both categories.

The spending plan approved by lawmakers also would boost state funding for school districts' transportation costs. The state would fund 90% of those costs in the first year of the next budget cycle and would fully funds those expenses in the second year, legislative leaders said.

The budget bill also would steer more state funding to less-wealthy school districts to balance out funding disparities with wealthier districts.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Givens said Wednesday that the emphasis on education funding signals that teachers are appreciated and that Kentucky is a good place to work as an educator.

“Any rhetoric that makes you feel like you’re not appreciated, please disregard that," Givens said. "We value what you do, day in and day out, and this budget reflects that.”

Another Beshear priority that made no headway was his proposal to provide preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky. Republican lawmakers included no money in the budget for his proposal. The governor’s budget plan included $172 million each year of the two-year budget for his universal pre-K plan. The program would extend preschool education to an estimated 34,000 additional 4-year-olds, he said.

The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence praised the funding for full-day kindergarten and public universities but said the budget bill fell short of needed investments in early childhood education. The Prichard Committee is a statewide citizens’ group that advocates for improved Kentucky schools.

“Significantly more funding and policy innovation is needed to expand access to quality, affordable early childhood education, which is a critical missing piece to growing Kentucky’s economy both today and in the future,” Prichard Committee President/CEO Brigitte Blom said in a statement Thursday.

The other appropriations measure that won final passage would make a number of one-time investments, financed by a portion of the state's budget reserves. It would allocate $450 million over two years to the road fund to support projects to help spur economic development and improve quality of life, a Senate GOP news release said. Other funding would help pay down state pension liabilities and finance school improvements, community development, water projects and substance abuse treatment programs.

After Thursday, lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a two-day wrap-up session in mid-April, when they will take up any gubernatorial vetoes as well as remaining bills.