Governor Beshear stood in front of his charts and graphs Thursday afternoon in a courtroom in the McCracken County Courthouse and pled his case. It is imperative, he said, that every Kentuckian understand that there is a financial crisis facing the state. The immediate $156 million dollar shortfall is not just Frankfort’s problem. It is everyone’s problem.
“Is this a perfect plan?” he asked. “Of course not. The perfect plan would be not to have to do any of this.”
Speaking to a standing room only crowd, the Governor said his spending cuts are crafted to have the least effect elementary and secondary schools. Paducah and McCracken County have 17 schools, 634 teachers and 10,251 students. Last year SEEK, Kentucky’s funding program for local districts, sent $24.5 million dollars to McCracken County and $12.2 million to Paducah City Schools.
The Governor said that the future of the state depends on building an innovative workforce. “To gut education would be to doom Kentucky to mediocrity.’
His budget plan will protect the Medicaid program, already $183 million dollars short, continue to provide prisoner beds at the current levels (the federal courts aren’t giving the state a choice), shield mental health and mental retardation programs, public safety, especially the Kentucky State Police Academy, because the KSP is at its lowest level of officers “in awhile”.
He specifically mentioned the Four Rivers Behavioral Center, located in Paducah, as a program that needed to be preserved.
One chart showed the pain so far.
No cuts for student financial aid, teacher retirement, Medicaid, mental health/mental retardation, health insurance for school districts, some juvenile justice programs.
He will encourage college leaders to work to hold college tuition down.
In addition to the cuts, new revenue must be raised and the Governor is proposing a .70 cent increase in the cigarette tax and “doubling” the smokeless tobacco tax. In addition to increasing revenue, the Governor and supporters say the increased price will lead to fewer smokers and especially fewer teen smokers.
The Governor reminded the crowd that Kentucky is number one in poor health and said, “That’s not what we want to be number one in.”
Regarding whether his plan was the only one he could see working, he said, “I am open to new ideas, new solutions. Over next month and a half, I will be spending a lot of time with our legislators.”
“One last word, we’re gonna solve this problem. But in all likelihood, this is not the last problem we’re going to have. Everybody, economists and such, I talk to, seem to think that things are going to get worse before they get better.” If that is the case, then what we are doing today will be a first step of perhaps several steps to dealing with this. But I know one thing. We will get through this.”
During the question and answer session, Sheriff Jon Hayden and Paducah City School Superintendent thanked the Governor for coming to West Kentucky and being available. One speaker asked if he would come to Marshall County to present the issues. The Governor offered to try.
Among other questions, the Governor was asked if he would consider reorganizing state government as Governor Brown did in 1980. He said that his administration had been downsizing and that there were 2000 fewer state employees today than when he took office. There are 600 fewer nonmerit employees in his administration than in the Fletcher administration.
When reminded of the failure of the cigarette tax in the 2008 session and being asked how he would go about convincing Senate President Williams to go along with the tax, the Governor replied:.
“I started some conversations with the legislative leaders during the last week, just talking about the problem in general. I talked with Senator Williams then and I talked with him this morning, just to brief him on my plan. And I sense on behalf of all the legislative leaders an openness to look at all of our options. Obviously, we don’t have any commitments. They’ve just heard about my plan and will take some time to look at it. I have confidence that common ground will be found with the Legislature. “
Just where that common ground will be remains to be seen.