Keeling: Did the real Beshear finally stand up?

Contributing ColumnistJanuary 26, 2014 

  • About the authors: Lawernce J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Doug Brooks is president emeritus of the International Stability Operations Association.

FRANKFORT — Opinionated old curmudgeons with column space to fill every other Sunday can't live in a vacuum. We need to seek out people who actually know what they're talking about and listen to their words of wisdom, even if we later make fools of ourselves by ignoring everything they tell us.

So, after Gov. Steve Beshear submitted the last biennial budget proposal of his two-term tenure to the General Assembly Tuesday, I checked in with a few people who know way more than I do about state government, budgets and politics (and probably everything else worth discussing).

If you're one of those folks and you're getting a little nervous at this point about your reputation being destroyed by having your name associated with mine, chill. No names will be named.

My takeaway from these chats and emails is that, in this budget proposal, Beshear established some clear priorities important to him: education, health care, child care, pay raises for state workers and teachers who can't remember the last time they got one, addressing the state's pension woes and addressing Eastern Kentucky's perennial economic woes. I may have omitted one or two, but these are the highlights.

Whether he was motivated by a desire to enhance what now shapes up to be a rather modest gubernatorial legacy (the two biggies, expanded gambling and tax reform, remain on the "to do" list) or simply by a desire to satisfy traditional Democratic constituencies (and gain their support for his son Andy Beshear's 2015 campaign for attorney general), Beshear took some decisive stands with this budget proposal.

"Finally," in the eyes of some who think the "share the pain" approach dominating his previous budget proposals was harmful to Kentucky's continued progress in such critical areas as education.

Term-limited governors on the downhill side of their second go-round who have no interest in seeking election to another office can afford to take stands. They can afford to be themselves, at least to the extent that being themselves doesn't hurt a son's political ambitions.

Of course, taking a stand doesn't assure you of getting everything you want, particularly if your stand includes $1.9 billion in proposed bonds that would increase the state's debt service ratio to 7.05 percent.

Once upon a time, just nanoseconds ago in terms of Kentucky political history, anyone proposing a debt-service ratio above 6 percent would have been laughed out of the Capitol. Times have changed in those nanoseconds as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers have become addicted to "projects."

But the level of debt Beshear is proposing will be a tough sell. And if lawmakers do get sold on breaking the 7 percent ceiling, it's likely to be with their own pet projects, at the expense of some of the governor's favorites.

Logically, a couple of the items high on the list of potential cuts would be Beshear's proposals to widen and extend the Mountain Parkway and put Eastern Kentucky at the head of the line for getting high-speed broadband service. Building better roads to, and prioritizing better Internet access for, an area of the state people are leaving are head-scratchers that have to give lawmakers from other parts of the state pause.

But with Eastern Kentucky legislators (House Speaker Greg Stumbo, House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, Senate President Robert Stivers, Senate Majority Whip Brandon Smith) dominating the majority leadership in both chambers, don't expect either of these proposals to be left on what Hollywood calls the "cutting room floor." The casualties likely will be found elsewhere in Beshear's suggestions.

Aside from cutting projects to lower the debt service ratio, it's possible the House and Senate could let Beshear "own" this budget by passing it with relatively minor tweaking. That way, any pain belongs to him. Perhaps more important, they avoid addressing the need for additional revenue from expanded gambling or tax reform.

Whatever happens as the budget makes its way through the House and Senate, if the decisions that led to the clear priorities in the spending plan he proposed Tuesday represent Steve Beshear being the real Steve Beshear, I wish he had introduced himself to us years ago.

If he had, maybe his legacy and Andy Beshear's election as attorney general would already be secured.

Reach Larry Dale Keeling at lkeeling@herald-leader.com.

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