LOUISVILLE — Gubernatorial candidates Matt Bevin and Jack Conway highlighted their differences and traded cheap shots for a crowd of business types Tuesday at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting.
The contempt the two candidates share for one another was on full display as Bevin, the Republican nominee, and Conway, the state's Democratic attorney general, threw elbows over education, health care and spending. In a rare area of agreement, both men said the state should consider privatizing operations at some of its public parks.
The two men also exchanged sharp words over Bevin's relative newness to the state and Conway's alma mater, Duke University.
When Bevin brought up Conway's time at Duke, Conway fired back by noting a dust-up last year over Bevin's claim on LinkedIn that he had attended MIT, saying "at least I tell the truth about where I went to college."
Conway continued his strategy of trying to point out inconsistencies in Bevin's policy proposals while Bevin argued that his private sector experience would be better for the state than Conway's career in state government.
Conway focused much of his remarks on apparent differences the two candidates have on early childhood education, attacking Bevin for saying in a debate during the GOP primary that studies show an early education program such as Head Start "serves no purpose."
"This is something that we have to invest in," Conway said. "It's a big difference between me and my opponent. I mean my opponent's gone on record as saying he's against this kind of funding."
Moderator Ryan Alessi, a former political journalist, questioned whether Conway was proposing state funds to cover the cost of Head Start for every child in the state, to which the Democratic candidate suggested providing early childhood education programs for all children who qualify for Medicaid.
"I don't think the state needs to be paying for my daughter's pre-school," Conway said. "That's not what I'm talking about."
Bevin again disputed that he had ever called for eliminating funding for Head Start, accusing Conway of promising to spend money the state doesn't have and saying that it's "not just a function of throwing more money at the problem."
"We need early childhood education, no question about it," Bevin said. "I've got nine kids for crying out loud. You think I don't care about this?"
Bevin said he favors funding early childhood education for some, starting with students who attend "failing schools," but declined to provide a specific criteria.
"I'm not going to give you a threshold level," Bevin said.
There were also disagreements on Common Core, with Conway defending common educational standards and lamenting the "rhetoric" that has surrounded the issue.
"Common Core, whatever you call it, is not a federal takeover of education," Conway said. "And what I support is I support us here in Kentucky doing it the Kentucky way, much like we've done with Kynect and the Medicaid expansion."
Conway rattled off stats showing that independent measures of college and career readiness have skyrocketed while the dropout rate has plummeted since Kentucky moved to Common Core standards.
"So rather than getting caught up in all this rhetoric and lying about the fact of whether or not this is a federal takeover, let's talk about what it is," Conway said. "And if it needs to be tweaked, let's tweak it from the local level."
Bevin responded that embracing Common Core was one in a long line of "bad decisions" the state made in an effort to get more federal funding.
"Let's not kid ourselves, it's our money," Bevin said.
While Bevin said "we need metrics, we need standards, no question about it," he said Common Core had failed to make students competitive globally.
"The reason I'm opposed to this... if you know you're going the wrong way, take your foot off the gas," Bevin said.
Bevin said repeatedly that the next governor must be a good "steward" of state tax dollars, but he was consistently vague about which programs don't deserve funding and declined to specify which government assets he would sell, as he has proposed in his "Blueprint for Kentucky."
Conway said he already has experience managing a tight budget, citing reduced spending in the state attorney general's office.
The two also continued to butt heads over Kynect, the health insurance exchange implemented by Gov. Steve Beshear, and the state's expanded Medicaid program.
Bevin described the combination of expanded Medicaid and Kynect as "a disastrous package of costs," but he again disputed that in February he said he would get rid of the expanded Medicaid qualifications on Day One.
"No question about it, I would reverse that immediately," Bevin said at the time.
On Tuesday, Bevin said his previous statement was that he would "address it."
"I didn't say I would end it," Bevin said. "Go back and look what I said. Here's the bottom line: We need to address the situation."
Conway continued his argument that Bevin would "kick half a million" people off of health insurance rolls on Day One, saying such a policy is "callous" and not "courageous."