FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky lawmakers made a series of last-minute spending and tax policy revisions Saturday before wrapping up the year’s tumultuous session, capped by an extraordinary rebuke of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s explosive remarks toward teachers.
The GOP-led Kentucky House approved a pair of resolutions condemning Bevin’s comments Friday that children were sexually abused while teachers rallied at the state Capitol.
Senate President Robert Stivers also weighed in Saturday evening, telling reporters: “It hurts me to think that the things that have been done in this administration will be overshadowed by a statement that is not defensible. That is a statement that people will remember Gov. Bevin by.”
Lawmakers ended the 60-day session Saturday evening after a long day of sifting through bills. With the clock winding down, the legislature passed two measures described as providing “cleanup language” to the operating budget and revenue bills that lawmakers enacted Friday when they overrode Bevin’s vetoes.
Both follow-up bills were sent to Bevin in the session’s waning hours. The governor has authority to veto any of the changes and lawmakers would not be able to attempt an override.
Top GOP lawmakers sounded unconcerned about more vetoes, saying Bevin’s administration had a hand in preparing many of the budget and tax policy tweaks.
Also on the final day, the Republican-led legislature grudgingly agreed to fund a high-speed internet project plagued by delays and cost overruns.
The tax-related measure would, among other things, restore a tax credit available to some of Kentucky’s largest manufacturers, including Toyota and GE Appliances. The tax credit was inadvertently cut in recent weeks when lawmakers rushed to pass the tax overhaul.
In a letter to lawmakers, the state’s economic development secretary warned that loss of the tax incentive would endanger thousands of current jobs and potentially prevent creation of future jobs by some of Kentucky’s largest employers.
A key provision in the spending-related measure offers some relief to school districts in Kentucky’s economically distressed coal-producing regions. Those districts have suffered from lower enrollment and drops in property tax collections and revenue from taxes on unmined coal.
Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican from Hazard, said the extra infusion of money would have “a tremendous impact” on those cash-strapped districts.
“These schools would not have been able to come up with this money,” he said.
The bill would divide $7 million among 31 school districts, based on how much was lost in unmined minerals tax revenue. The two biggest recipients would be the Knott County district at more than $1.2 million and the Pike County district at more than $1.1 million.
Lawmakers also agreed to fund the so-called Kentucky Wired project, which sprung up to build a network of more than 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) of fiber optic cables to bring broadband capability to all of Kentucky’s 120 counties. It was supposed to be finished by now, but state officials think they won’t be able to turn the network on until at least 2020.
Delays have cost the state $88 million in unexpected expenses. Lawmakers agreed Saturday to let the state borrow up to $110 million to pay that debt. And they agreed to continue funding the project at about $60 million over the next two years. Bevin’s administration had warned not funding the project would kill it and cost taxpayers up to half a billion dollars.
Bills failing to make it across the finish line included a proposal to let utility companies pay less for the energy they purchase from solar customers. The Senate sent the bill back to committee. Opponents had said the bill would kill the state’s fledgling solar power industry.
The Capitol was quieter Saturday than a day earlier, when thousands of teachers and other school workers swarmed the statehouse on a pivotal day of the session, when lawmakers overrode the governor’s vetoes of the main two-year state spending bill and the tax measure.
Small groups of educators showed up Saturday to monitor the final maneuverings of lawmakers. One teacher, J.P. Lavertu, denounced the changes the legislature made to public pension systems and said the budget didn’t adequately fund schools.
Asked to sum up the session, he said: “The wildest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Final votes capped a tumultuous session that began in early January and will be remembered for massive teacher protests, divisions among ruling Republicans over the budget and tax bills, the struggles to overhaul pensions and a sexual harassment scandal that ensnared then-Speaker Jeff Hoover. The longtime Republican lawmaker resigned his leadership position in January but kept his House seat. He recently agreed to pay a $1,000 fine and a public reprimand from the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Overshadowing the session’s final day were Bevin’s explosive comments criticizing teachers for leaving work Friday to protest at the Capitol. More than 30 school districts closed Friday.
“I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them,” Bevin said, according to a video posted to Twitter by a reporter for WDRB-TV. “I guarantee you somewhere today a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone because a single parent didn’t have any money to take care of them. I’m offended by the idea that people so cavalierly and so flippantly disregarded what’s truly best for children.”
In a floor speech, the Senate’s top Democrat, Ray Jones, denounced Bevin’s remarks.
“Those comments were disgusting and they were unfitting for anyone who holds the title of governor of the commonwealth of Kentucky,” Jones said.