In his State of the Commonwealth address, Gov. Steve Beshear hit all the right notes and espoused some great causes, including tax reform and early childhood education.
It's the follow-through that counts, however. And it's hard to tell if Beshear is laying better groundwork for his ideas with the legislature this year than in previous sessions when he had to settle for modest accomplishments.
The most concrete thing Beshear had to tell lawmakers was that the state's revenue picture will require deep cuts in state spending and services. Recent state budgets have been balanced through a combination of spending cuts and billions of dollars in stimulus funds from the federal government. The federal money has run out.
As a result, Beshear said, "the numbers are so wretched that we will likely be forced to carve into some of our most critical, basic services. And it will hurt."
Exposing the wounds from previous cuts, a coalition of education groups before the speech issued an analysis showing that P-12 education would need an infusion of $323 million just to get back to 2008 levels. Despite Beshear's efforts to spare the basic funding formula for public schools, per-student funding has declined when adjusted for inflation.
And yet the governor expressed no particular urgency about reforming taxes to ensure a steadier revenue stream. Because of deep structural imbalances, Kentucky has spent more than it has taken in for a decade.
But Beshear declared that he planned to balance the budget exclusively through spending cuts without raising any new revenue, despite his call for tax reform at some unspecified time in the future. Why not now?
He also urged the legislature to put a constitutional amendment authorizing casino-style gambling to voters. Beshear spoke of truckloads of money leaving Kentucky for casinos in other states, where it's paying to educate their children when it could be educating young Kentuckians.
But Beshear seems to be offering nothing but an open mind on the details of an amendment. The questions surrounding expanded gambling have snarled the legislatures and governors for almost 20 years. If Beshear has developed a path around that snarl, he should lead, prod and entice all the interested parties down it as soon and persuasively as possible. Otherwise, another regular session will pass with no gambling amendment.
Beshear, who can't run again for governor, should be rich in political capital after his re-election even if state coffers are bare. If he's looking to invest his political capital in a better future for Kentucky (and a legacy for himself), tax reform is a much safer bet than gambling.