FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- Supporters and opponents of a bill that would provide tax credits worth $25 million to those who donate to groups that award private-school scholarships made their cases Tuesday before the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee.
But with time winding down in this year’s session and a 60-vote threshold to hit in a House floor vote, options to advance the legislation as a stand alone measure are extremely limited. After Tuesday, lawmakers have just three days until they only take up bills for concurrence, meaning they could not take up bills like HB 205 that have not left their original chambers.
House Majority Floor Leader John “Bam” Carney, sponsor of HB 205, said reaching 60 votes to advance scholarship tax credits to the Senate will be “difficult.” He had previously indicated that 50 votes would be sufficient on Monday, but like House Speaker David Osborne, Carney said past court decisions on passing such bills in non-budget sessions prompted him to err on the side of caution.
“We felt like we probably had the votes to get it out today here, but the issue obviously has a lot of attention and didn’t necessarily want to have members take that vote in committee until we can get to the 60-vote threshold,” Carney, R-Campbellsville, told reporters after Tuesday’s discussion-only hearing. “That’s kind of the hurdle right now.”
Carney declined to speculate on adding scholarship tax credits to another tax bill that’s closer to the finish line, although he did not rule out such an option on Monday.
If scholarship tax credits are passed in some fashion this session, Gov. Matt Bevin said that he would sign the legislation "in a heartbeat."
"It's an absolute no-brainer," Bevin told reporters Tuesday.
He dismissed concerns that it would harm Kentucky's public education system.
"This isn't about the education system," Bevin said. "It's about the individual. It's about the student. It's about their parent. It's about choices."
Supporters urged lawmakers to pass HB 205, saying the $25 million in tax credits would help improve outcomes for students who struggle in traditional school settings.
The bill would allow donors to recoup the lion’s share of their donations to scholarship-granting groups like School Choice Scholarships in Louisville through tax credits worth at least 95 percent of their contributions up to $1 million.
During his testimony, Carney was flanked by parents who touted the benefits of private schooling for their kids. Some parents received scholarships to help send their kids to the schools while others simply hoped to get the financial aid.
Robert Sexton, of Louisville, said his son struggled with severe reading and writing deficiencies throughout his time at Jefferson County Public Schools. Teachers tried to help, but Sexton said his son’s learning never progressed.
After speaking with school officials, Sexton said they encouraged him to explore private school as an option for his son. The roughly $13,000 tuition for the Meredith-Dunn School, where his son ultimately landed, floored him.
“If this scholarship tax credit is passed, it will be able to help me to be able to spend more time with my son while he’s in high school,” Sexton said, noting his son will be a freshman at Trinity High School next year, because it has a program similar to Meredith-Dunn’s.
“If not, I’ll continue to work 60, 70 hours a week for my son to go to school. I have no problems with doing that, but this scholarship tax credit not only would help my son, it would help children all over the state of Kentucky who have similar problems,” Sexton said.
Opponents, however, fear that allowing $25 million in scholarship tax credits would pose a significant financial problem for school districts across Kentucky. If more kids opt to leave public schools on a private-school scholarship, districts will receive less per-pupil funding from the state, they said during Tuesday’s meeting.
But just because there are fewer kids in classrooms doesn’t mean expenses will decline at the same rate, if at all, they argued. It's a similar point raised by superintendents across the state, who held press conferences Monday against HB 205.
Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Thompson said if enrollment in his 4,336-student district dropped by 1 percent – supporters say that’s how much public-school enrollment could be impacted by HB 205 – the district would still need the same number of teachers and bus routes to cover about 43 fewer students. The district’s utility bills would also be unaffected by a reduction in students, he said.
Such an enrollment reduction would cause Montgomery County to lose $172,000 in per-pupil funding from the state and $19,000 in state transportation funding, meaning local residents would likely be asked to pay higher taxes to fill the funding gap, Thompson said.
“Over the course of the last 10 years, local funding as had to take on 14 percent more in comparison to SEEK funding, to state funding,” he said. “That’s been something our community has honestly willingly done, but it’s something that we can no longer continue to take on. When our school boards are put in a position of having to raise taxes as a result of that, that puts a target on our school board members.”
HB 205 faces an uncertain future in this year’s General Assembly.
Rep. Steven Rudy, a Paducah Republican who chairs the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said talks would continue on the scholarship tax credit bill, but before adjourning for the day Tuesday, he noted that it could be the final meeting of the House budget committee during this year’s session unless a special meeting is called.
Carney said he believes HB 205 could pick up “a few” Democratic votes since not all Republicans are on board with the legislation.
“Some of them are from smaller districts where they may not have any other choice for school children to go to,” Carney said.
Rudy, speaking to WDRB News after Tuesday’s meeting, said he was unsure whether HB 205 could pass the House budget committee.
“I haven’t whipped the votes,” he said.
Rudy was coy when asked whether he supported HB 205. Scholarship tax credits, he said, are “worthy of discussion.”
“I put it on the agenda for discussion,” Rudy said when asked whether he would vote for HB 205.
He also noted that time is running thin for bills such as HB 205 that remain in committee as this year’s session draws closer to sine die adjournment.
“Here in the last days we’re in the wind-down mode,” Rudy said. “The chances of a House bill making it all the way across the finish line at this point is very difficult with just the number of days that we have left.”
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