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Beshear pushes for major investments in schools and new jobs

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s Democratic governor pitched sweeping budget proposals Thursday as “bold investments” to bolster the state’s competitiveness, calling for more spending on economic development, social services and his plan for state-backed universal preschool.

With robust state tax collections fueling massive revenue surpluses, Gov. Andy Beshear said Kentucky should seize the opportunity to add nearly $2 billion for education spending from preschool through 12th grade, raise state workers’ pay, prepare more industrial development sites and offer preschool for every 4-year-old.

“It’s a budget that moves Kentucky not right or left but forward,” Beshear said hours before his budget speech to lawmakers. “This is a budget built on values that we as Kentuckians live by, while making bold investments to continue our record-breaking economic momentum.”

But the Democratic governor’s ambitious proposals could end up clashing with Republican plans to capitalize on excess revenues by revamping the state tax code. GOP lawmakers have House and Senate supermajorities and will have the final say on tax-and-spend matters.

House Republicans filed their own budget bill last week that calls for less state spending than Beshear proposed. And House Speaker David Osborne said this week that Kentucky has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to modernize its tax system though he didn’t offer any details. In an appearance on Kentucky Educational Television, Osborne said the House plans to accelerate budget work to allow time to tackle the complexities of tax legislation during the 60-day session.

The governor said Thursday that a tax code overhaul is unnecessary and could be disruptive.

“When people throw out something like tax reform, what they always say is it’s our business climate that we need to improve.” Beshear said at a news conference. “We just came off the best year of economic development ever in our history.”

Last year, the Bluegrass State posted unprecedented highs for business investments and jobs created. Strong corporate income tax receipts in Kentucky show companies are prospering with the current tax code, Beshear said.

“Most of the time when you’re winning and you’re winning and you’re winning, you don’t change your offense,” Beshear said.

Osborne on Thursday called it a clear “philosophical difference.” He said the governor was committed to a “brand of tax and spend politics,” while House Republicans want to update tax laws to propel more growth by letting Kentuckians “keep more of their hard-earned money.”

A governor’s budget speech traditionally starts budget work in a legislative session. This time, Beshear’s speech came after House Republicans broke with tradition to introduce their own state budget legislation without waiting for the governor’s recommendations.

Caught off guard by the maneuver, Beshear responded by rolling out different parts of his spending plan this week. Osborne has said lawmakers will “fully consider” the governor’s proposals.

A cornerstone of Beshear’s plan is to guarantee pre-kindergarten learning for every 4-year-old in Kentucky, with the state fully funding the initiative. The cost — $172 million in each year of the next biennium — would amount to a fraction of the state’s revenue surplus, he has said.

Beshear’s plan calls for a bigger increase than the House bill for the base per-pupil funding under SEEK, the state’s main K-12 education funding formula. The governor’s two-year budget would raise the amount to $4,300 in the first year and to $4,500 in the second year. Under the House GOP plan, the amount would go to $4,100 in the first year and $4,200 in the second. The current amount is $4,000.

To promote economic development, the governor said, his budget plan calls for using $250 million to develop a Site Identification and Development program. The goal is to enable state business recruiters to tout more Kentucky sites that are “shovel ready” for industrial prospects. Kentucky turned one such mega site into a huge windfall last year, when Ford and a partner selected tiny Glendale, Kentucky, to build twin plants to produce batteries to power electric vehicles.

Beshear said he was able to make all his spending requests while still setting aside more “rainy day” money. He said his proposed budget would add another $250 million to the state’s budget reserves.

The governor conceded that he preferred the House Republican plan on at least one issue.

Beshear said Thursday that he backed the size of the House GOP’s proposed pay raise for state employees. The governor said his budget plan, developed before the GOP bill, called for a 5% increase. The Republican spending plan proposes a 6% raise.