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Beshear defends budget plan

LOUISVILLE — Gov. Steve Beshear defended his plan Friday to divert about $17.5 million headed for coal counties to help address a $456 million state budget shortfall.

But the Democratic governor added that he was "open" to discussing the move with state legislators.

House Speaker Jody Richards and several state lawmakers from coal-producing counties oppose using excess proceeds from the coal severance tax to balance the state budget.

Richards, D-Bowling Green, said it would be unfair to impact particular geographical regions of the state. Coal counties, particularly rural areas in Eastern and Western Kentucky, have come to rely on coal severance tax receipts as a major source of their revenue.

Beshear said the use of the coal tax proceeds "is appropriate under these extraordinary circumstances."

He stressed that "this is not money that has already been appropriated for any particular project. This is excess money that has come in because the coal severance tax is producing more money than was estimated."

Beshear's comments came during a news conference at Louisville's Metro Hall with several education and health officials who back his plan to raise by 70 cents the state's 30-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to avoid big cuts in education and other programs.

Supporting his plan were Jefferson County Superintendent Sheldon Berman; Steve Neal, director of the Jefferson County Teachers Association; Bob Sexton, director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; Sam Corbett, chair of the Prichard Committee; mental health advocate Sheila Schuster; and Mike Kuntz, a lobbyist for the American Lung Association of Kentucky.