FRANKFORT (AP) — Gov. Andy Beshear proposed an infusion of aid into Kentucky's coronavirus-battered economy on Thursday evening, announcing an ambitious budget plan that includes down-payments on his long-running goals of raising salaries for teachers and boosting public education funding.
The Democratic governor, delivering his annual State of the Commonwealth address, also called for pay raises for state employees, full funding for Medicaid, more staffing to combat child abuse and increased funding for the state's beleaguered unemployment insurance system.
Beshear's plan is sure to face headwinds with Republicans in full control of the legislature, but it lays out his view of the state's urgent needs. It includes several proposals that helped him win the office in 2019. Thus, if Republicans choose to put their priorities elsewhere, Beshear is likely to use his platform to challenge those decisions.
With COVID-19 still raging early in the vaccine rollout, Beshear urged the GOP-led legislature to quickly pass a separate virus relief bill. It includes $220 million in aid for small businesses, $20 million for non-profit organizations and $100.9 million to help repay a federal loan that kept the state's unemployment insurance program afloat.
In a separate response to the pandemic hardships, Beshear said he will allocate $48 million of federal virus aid to help some of Kentucky's unemployed workers. Each eligible person will receive $1,000. The aid will go to jobless Kentuckians who have waited more than two months for benefits. It also applies to people who missed out on supplemental jobless benefits last year.
The governor's major address was delivered virtually as a precaution against the pandemic. He has presented his plan to Republican lawmakers who, with veto-proof majorities, will reshape the budget to their liking.
With the state on better-than-expected financial ground, thanks in part to federal relief and improved state tax collections, Beshear urged lawmakers to take bold action to get Kentucky through the pandemic and position it for the post-pandemic world.
“We have not had this much opportunity for new investment in our people and our future in a generation," Beshear said. “Let's make it count. Let's have the courage. Let's be bold."
His proposed investments include one-time spending of $100 million for school renovations and construction and $50 million to expand broadband access.
The governor's main budget plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 was built on no tax increases and assumes no new revenues from proposed ventures such as efforts to legalize sports betting. His proposed budget contains no General Fund spending cuts.
The spending blueprint reaffirms his priorities before the pandemic put them on hold in 2020.
Beshear, who campaigned on a pledge to boost support for public education, proposed a $1,000 pay raise for public school teachers and classified staff such as bus drivers and janitors. It's a step toward achieving the $2,000 raise he promised for every public school teacher.
He called for a 1% increase in the state’s school funding formula, known as SEEK, for public K-12 schools. That would inject nearly $32 million more into schools in the next year. Base per-pupil funding would rise by $40 to $4,040. His plan seeks to restore $11 million for textbook costs.
For public universities, which absorbed repeated cuts in the past decade, the governor called for a 2% budget increase from the General Fund.
His budget allocates $47.5 million to shore up the unemployment insurance system, which was inundated by record numbers of claims amid the pandemic. It resulted in long delays for many people seeking jobless assistance. Beshear's proposal would add staffing for unemployment offices.
Beshear’s plan fully funds the state’s Medicaid program, including the Medicaid expansion started when his father, Steve Beshear, was governor. The expansion added hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians to the Medicaid rolls.
Local health departments on the front lines in combating the COVID-19 outbreak would share in an additional $12 million in General Fund support under his plan.
The governor proposed an additional $7 million to hire 76 more social workers to combat child abuse and reduce caseloads.
Beshear proposed a 1% pay raise for state employees. And he has committed to paying the full contribution required on public employees’ pensions. He also proposed $72 million in pension relief for regional universities and quasi-governmental agencies — such as local health departments and community mental health centers.
His plan would put another $100 million in the state's Rainy Day fund.
Kentucky's budget situation was bolstered by the massive influx of federal coronavirus aid and the increased federal share of Medicaid spending. It also reflects the Kentucky economy's resilience with stronger tax collections in recent months.