Politics & Government

Fletcher still on tourism ads, despite pledge

To the chagrin of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's opponents, state-funded tourism advertisements featuring the governor continue airing on radio stations across Kentucky despite an earlier promise that the ads would be pulled when he filed for re-election.

"Whenever that date is that the governor and Secretary Rudolph actually file, we will take those off," Randall Fiveash, state commissioner of tourism, told the Herald-Leader in an Oct. 20 interview. "We're going to do whatever is the proper, right thing."

But more than two months after Fletcher filed to run in the Republican primary with Robbie Rudolph as his running mate, the ads urging Kentuckians to visit tourism sites in other regions of the state are still running in prominent radio time slots, such as the post-game show of a recent University of Kentucky men's basketball game.

Despite the apparent contradiction, Fiveash insists the administration has honored his October promise.

The Department of Tourism did pull the advertisements from a $10,000-a-month deal with the Kentucky Broadcasters Association, which distributed the ads to run as free public service advertisements on radio stations around the state.

The decision was necessary since radio stations that provide free airtime to Fletcher might also have to do the same for his opponents.

However, the state quickly purchased more than $60,000 of radio time during broadcasts of UK, University of Louisville and the high school Boys' Sweet 16 basketball games. Because the stations now are being paid directly for the airtime, they are not under an obligation to provide free time to other candidates.

"He's running for re-election, but he's still the governor of our state and he's the best sales person we've got," Fiveash said. "We thought it was a great market for us because it speaks to people who want to travel in Kentucky."

Meanwhile, First Lady Glenna Fletcher has recorded some of the same tourism ads, which will begin airing through the Kentucky Broadcasters Association deal this week.

Fiveash said the ads with Gov. Fletcher would end with the basketball seasons in late March, well before the primary. "The governor wants to do the right thing," he said.

Fletcher's opponents in the GOP primary think otherwise.

"The administration should be held to their earlier statement when they said they would not use tax dollars to promote the governor during this political campaign," said Barry Peel, spokesman for former congresswoman Anne Northup. "Maybe Governor Fletcher could explain to the good citizens of Kentucky why they should bear the cost of him promoting himself in an election year."

A spokesman for Paducah businessman Billy Harper had a milder response, calling the ads "unfortunate."

"It's a tactic used by politicians," said Stan Pulliam, spokesman for Harper. "We plan on moving forward and running a positive campaign. We'll let the other candidates battle about whether it's right or not."

When questioned last week, Fletcher dismissed any suggestion that the ads might be inappropriate, saying the spots were "planned a long time ago."

Fletcher said the spots would have no effect on his electability, noting that his name recognition is already at 98 percent among Kentuckians. "I don't think somebody is going to vote for me just because I'm telling them to go to Kenlake," he said.

Other governors have gotten into hot water with lawmakers over similar issues. Governors in New York, Maryland, Louisiana and Alabama have all faced criticism during recent years for appearing in public service announcements during campaign season.

Maryland lawmakers were so incensed that they effectively outlawed the ads last year. In October, a bipartisan group of Alabama lawmakers proposed a bill making it illegal for public officials to appear in service announcements bought with tax money six months before any election. Minnesota also bans elected officials from being in state-paid advertising.

"I would say the six-month rule would be very appropriate," said Richard Beliles, state chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, a government watchdog group that tried four years ago to push a proposal that would have banned naming buildings after elected officials while they are in office.

Others think such a law is unnecessary, saying they think a governor is the most logical person to speak on behalf of his state, even if doing so might provide personal political benefits.

"Those kinds of activities are legitimate functions of the governor," said former Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat. "Now there's a fine line. All those things either enhance your re-election or take away from it."