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Bill Seeking to Restore Construction Projects Dies

Sun April 22, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Bruce Schreiner - ASSOCIATED PRESS

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) Efforts to restore hundreds of millions of dollars worth of spending projects for Kentucky universities and other causes died March 27 as lawmakers wrapped up their 2007 regular session.

Despite a strong push by university presidents, the proposal seeking to reinstate approximately $370 million of spending withered in the Senate. The measure included proposals to improve student housing, classrooms and research facilities on campuses.

“It’s really going to inconvenience a lot of universities; maybe cause some real problems,” said House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, who termed the failure to revive the projects his biggest disappointment of the session.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher had slashed the money from the budget last year amid concerns of rising state debt. But from the start of this year’s session, Fletcher supported reinstating the projects, noting the state’s fiscal condition had improved.

“I do think they’re important to get done, and we have the revenues now to support that bond letting,” the governor said.

Supporters noted that many projects did not affect the state General Fund, and that the universities and other recipients would have covered the debt service.

The measure passed the House in February but stalled in the Senate, where leaders insisted that lawmakers deal with looming shortfalls in the state pension system before restoring the vetoed projects. The House balked at the Senate’s pension plan.

“We have new challenges facing us,” Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly said.

A separate state spending proposal pushed by the governor also died March 27. Fletcher had sought additional money for, among other things, the Kentucky Horse Park in preparation for the 2010 World Equestrian Games and to help southern Kentucky communities cope with the lowering of Lake Cumberland.

University of Louisville President James Ramsey was among college officials who went to the Capitol to meet with legislators March 27 to tout the construction projects. U of L officials sought $11.5 million in bonding to renovate a dormitory.

But Ramsey pinned hopes on a backup plan if the projects didn’t pass.

Fletcher had talked about calling the legislature into a special session later in the year. The main topic would likely be a state pension overhaul, but other issues could include restoring the vetoed projects.

“If it doesn’t [happen], then we’ll have to move on and hope that there is another opportunity to have the projects restored later,” Ramsey said.

Sen. Ken Winters, R-Murray, said he regretted that the projects didn’t pass.

“All of us came into this session with the idea that we probably try to take care of all of those vetoed projects,” Winters said.

The projects also included:

• $13.5 million in bonding for an expansion of the University of Kentucky’s livestock disease diagnostic center.

• $9 million in bonding for a science complex at Western Kentucky University and another $5.8 million for planning and designing a new building for the business school.

• $10.5 million in bonding to construct new student housing at Eastern Kentucky University, and $5.3 million for a dairy research project.

• $17 million in bonding for a new student recreation center at Morehead State University, and another $10 million to renovate student housing.

Other projects included money for a polar bear exhibit at the Louisville Zoo, for renovating locks and dams on the Kentucky River and for building animal shelters.

Kelly, R-Springfield, said that the Senate had a bigger priority — its plan to revamp the state’s pension system by selling more than $800 million in bonds and changing benefits for future employees. The plan drew bipartisan backing in passing the Senate but had made no headway in the House.

As for the vetoed projects, Kelly said, “That was one of the things that we intended to do, but that was not the looming thing on my mind.”

Kelly said the pension system needed to be the top priority because if left in its current form, it would consume any additional money lawmakers have at their disposal in 2008 when writing the next two-year state budget.

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