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Governor assesses performance, so far

FRANKFORT — In his first year as governor of Kentucky, Democrat Steve Beshear said he was unprepared for the intensity of the job.

"No one who hasn't sat in this chair can appreciate the number of decisions and many times the enormity of the effects of those decisions that you make daily. There is so much going on that you have to say grace over," Beshear said during a wide-ranging interview Wednesday in the Capitol office he took over last Dec. 11.

Maybe the biggest decisions of Beshear's still-young administration will be made by the end of next week.

The 64-year-old governor will have to decide how to deal with a nearly half-billion-dollar shortfall in the state budget for this fiscal year.

Trying to decide what painful cuts will be necessary and whether taxes must be raised now dominates his time.

Following are excerpts of a Herald-Leader interview with Beshear.

Question: Will it be necessary to raise taxes to handle the budget shortfall?

Answer: We haven't reached any conclusions on that yet. One thing is for sure, we will be reducing our spending more.

Q: You talk about cuts but news stories have accounted questionable spending in your administration, such as additional dollars for some hires in homeland security. Don't you think that gives a bad perception of how state dollars are being handled?

A: I don't apologize for hiring qualified people that you need. The jobs in homeland security are all federally funded so they don't affect our budget crisis one way or another. We do apply the same criteria, whether it's state or federal money. But look at the big picture. We've got 460 less non-merit (politically appointed) employees than the last administration had.

Q: Your administration will have to deal with about 3,000 new Medicaid recipients each month when it was expecting about 1,000. What will you do about that?

A: Medicaid is part of our budget problem. We will be addressing all this problem at the same time as much as we can. I am hoping that we will be receiving more federal assistance on Medicaid in President-elect Obama's administration.

Q: Will you be pushing casino gambling in the 2009 General Assembly?

A: Right now, expanded gaming is not on my front burner because we are faced with an economic crisis more severe than anything we have seen in 50 or 60 years. Any type of expanded gaming legislation would not help in resolving such an immediate crisis because it couldn't produce any income in time to help us do that.

Q: What grade would you give your first year in office?

A: I'm not in the business of giving myself grades. That's up to the people of this state to do. I came into office in difficult financial times that have gotten severely worse. While you can't choose the economic times in which you serve, you can choose how you will lead. The first thing we tackled was state government itself. I think one of the clear messages that the last election sent was that people wanted a change in the way business is conducted in Frankfort. I think we have made some great progress in doing that. We enacted one of the toughest executive branch ethics codes of any in the country. We have started to develop a culture of integrity. That shows up particularly in the Transportation Cabinet in how we are doing business there. And we have made state government more lean and efficient than it has been in some time. We have 2,000 less employees than last year.

Q: If you could have a do-over for your first year as governor, what would you do over?

A: I'd ask for a good economy. Every governor would like to be in office at a time of plenty of money to implement programs that would make a huge difference to people. But leading in a bad economy defines yourself real quick.

Q: What have you learned about yourself as governor?

A: I've learned that I have the capacity to be a much better governor than I would have been 20 years ago. I ran and lost a race for governor when I was in my 40s. This job requires a lot of patience, an ego that is under control and an ability to think for the long term.

Q: What do you think of Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville)?

A: Sen. Williams is a very intelligent, thoughtful person. He has the ability to do some great things for this state. I'm determined to continue finding ways to work with him and hopefully maximize the talents we both have for the good of the people of this state. We've had our ups and downs this past year. He is a very strong personality. I am, too. We made progress in the special session on pension reform. I look forward to building on that.

Q: Do you expect to seek re-election as governor in 2011?

A: I've not given much thought to that. We'll be thinking more about that as we move along.