LOUISVILLE — During their first joint appearance as candidates in this year's race for governor, Republican Senate President David Williams challenged Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to come up with a constitutional amendment for expanded gambling and to publicly gauge support in the legislature for it.
Williams said an amendment would resolve an issue that has been debated in Kentucky for years by letting voters decide it at the polls.
"If people are publicly committed to putting it on the ballot, then put it on the ballot, and then you will see how complicated an issue that it is," Williams said.
He said the Democratic-controlled state House had never approved a constitutional amendment on expanded gambling.
He contended that Beshear was blaming the GOP-led Senate for the failure of gambling legislation in order to raise money for his re-election campaign.
Beshear, who promised during his 2007 campaign for governor that he would expand gambling, said he supports a constitutional amendment but would want to know whether Williams would promise not to block its consideration in the Senate.
Williams said he would not have any effect on a Senate vote because he would be governor when the Senate meets again early next year, adding that he thought there are enough votes in the Senate to put an amendment on the ballot without his support.
Williams stressed that he still opposes expanded gambling. He also noted that a governor does not have the authority to veto a constitutional amendment.
Williams' and Beshear's comments came during and after a two-hour forum before the board of directors of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, the state's largest organization representing farmers.
For most of the forum, Beshear touted his leadership in managing Kentucky through hard economic times, while Williams countered that it was insufficient.
"The rosy picture he paints is not where I see our state is," said Williams, who called the state's tax structure broken.
The GOP leader said he wanted "a fair tax system that taxes consumption more than productivity."
Beshear said tax reform would mean raising and lowering taxes, and "we don't need to be looking at broad-based tax increases."
On several occasions, Williams referred to the tax system in neighboring Tennessee as being better than Kentucky's for job creation.
That prompted Beshear to say, "I don't know all the love this fellow has for the Big Orange." Kentucky's tax system is competitive with Tennessee's, he said.
Williams also tried to link Beshear with President Barack Obama. Obama's health care reforms and regulations have hurt farmers and the coal industry, and Beshear has not fought them, Williams said.
"I won't give lip service to this. I will fight it in court," he said.
Beshear said that hundreds of lawyers across the country have challenged the federal health care package and that he saw no need for Kentucky to spend taxpayers' money to join in that fight.
The two candidates disagreed on tort reform.
Beshear said that there was not enough support in Kentucky to cap legal settlements but that he could back a screening process on legal claims to see whether they have merit.
Williams said he always has voted for tort reform and claimed Beshear opposes it to garner support from unions and trial lawyers.
The two also squabbled on education.
Williams repeated his claim that Beshear is "under the influence" of teacher unions and that the Senate has been the leader in improving education in the state.
Beshear countered that the Senate has proposed several across-the-board cuts in the state budget, while he always has declined to cut education. Beshear also said he has tried to pass "a common-sense bill" to raise the state's school dropout age from 16 to 18.
"One person has kept it from passing," he said without mentioning Williams by name.
Williams said the dropout bill is not properly financed.
Beshear told the Farm Bureau directors that he deserved a second term because of his management of taxpayers' money, noting he has balanced the budget nine times because of shortfalls.
Williams called Beshear irrelevant in the legislative process and contended Beshear has spent most of his time trying to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans.
Williams acknowledged he has a tough reputation. "I'm not running for cruise director on the Good Ship Lollipop," he said. "We need some tough leadership in this state."
Beshear has declined to appear with Williams in several previous forums.
He said Wednesday that he would appear with Williams "from time to time."
Their next scheduled appearance is at the Fancy Farm political picnic on Aug. 6 in Graves County.