Beshear's hope for greatness in pre-K, tax reform

Gov. Steve Beshear gave the budget address in January 2008 to a joint session of the General Assembly shortly after his first election. Sitting behind him was Senate President David Williams.
Gov. Steve Beshear gave the budget address in January 2008 to a joint session of the General Assembly shortly after his first election. Sitting behind him was Senate President David Williams.

Only five other Kentucky governors have won the second term that awaits Steve Beshear beginning Tuesday, as a reward from the voters whom he has already served through a depressing economy that was not of his making.

While bad times are still with us, he clearly bears a reserve of trust and good will as he swears again to uphold our laws and promises "to move Kentucky forward."

Four years ago, writing on his first inauguration, I saw him as a "Hero of the Second Chance," who made a comeback after two consecutive election losses. Now, in what may be his last chance in politics, moving Kentucky forward in these next four years will require the determination to be not just a good governor, but a great one.

What might that effort give us? Despite talk of expanded gambling, I suggest tax reform and pre-kindergarten as the prime goals Beshear should seek. Proud as we are of some features of "our old Kentucky home," we remain one of the poorest states in the country (42nd in per capita income, near the bottom of adults with a college education).

Pre-K is the best path to long-range economic development and a healthier state. But remembering that shortfalls often shortchange children, we also need tax reform for a more reliable government income to build a state where people want to live, raise families of educated kids, grow businesses and protect the beauty of this special place.

While the governor and state Senate President David Wiliams wrangled over finances for four years, one of the least-noticed revenue sources in a state where the press and politicians alike constantly jabber over President Barack Obama's unpopularity, was the stimulus money sent from Obama's administration in Washington — over $3 billion.

As Kentucky politicians of both parties struggled to distance themselves from the nation's first African-American president, they mostly ignored how he was propping up our economy while our leaders ducked their responsibility to create an adequate revenue base for our critical needs.

Of the reviled stimulus, $2 billion went directly to the state's General Fund budget in State Fiscal Stabilization Funds and Medicaid. While Beshear and Williams fought it out to be the next governor, it's doubtful that many voters in this supposedly anti-Obama state knew that another $1 billion of the Obama stimulus went to prop up Kentucky's schools, transportation projects and various health and human-services programs.

Yes, the legislature and the governor made significant cuts where they could, and increases in "sin" taxes, liquor and tobacco, helped some. But the Obama stimulus dollars were a crucial factor in balancing the Kentucky budget the past three years.

Furthermore, Obama's efforts to "save Detroit" with stimulus money averted a catastrophe for the commonwealth where we also make a lot of cars and trucks.

But that was all then, and this is now.

The stimulus is gone, mostly remembered with a blanket of lies designed to oust from Washington the national leader who saved us from the worst of the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Facing as difficult an outlook as he did four years ago without hope of more unacknowledged special help from Washington, Beshear must become the boldest of leaders, crafting a four-year plan that champions early childhood education at any cost, and appropriates the investment costs.

His hardest fight — beyond pre-K, reforming our tax system and perhaps expanding gambling — will be to control spending trends on pensions, prisons and Medicaid that are shrinking education's share of our budget.

But fight he must if Kentucky is to move forward. Kentuckians should be skeptical and demand forward-looking alternatives from those who oppose. The status quo is killing us.