In their first joint appearance of the 2011 Kentucky gubernatorial election, Democratic Governor Steve Beshear and Republican state Senate President David Williams traded barbs on a range of issues at a forum Wednesday.
The Kentucky Farm Bureau hosted the discussion, which covered a number of topics such as agriculture, tax and education policy, along with federal regulations and expanded gaming.
For most of the forum, the governor highlighted his leadership and record of balancing several state budgets through the recession. Williams went on the attack against Beshear, saying the governor has not led on important issues and the commonwealth has fallen behind states such as Tennessee, which doesn’t have a state income tax.
“Our entire tax structure is broken. If you live on the Tennessee line you understand what impact it has to be competing with people that don’t have a personal income tax,” Williams said. “The most important thing we can do in the state of Kentucky is make sure we have a tax system that is fair to everyone, broad-based and taxes consumption more than it does productivity.
The governor told the bureau he supports extending tax exemptions for the horsing industry and other animal care businesses, but Beshear said any comprehensive tax reforms would include an increase and he would not support that as the state crawls out of the recession.
Despite continued high unemployment, Beshear said his GOP challenger was mistaken about the state’s competitiveness and criticized Williams for being more interested in cheerleading Tennessee tax policy than supporting real change in the state legislature.
“We’re nineteenth in the country in terms of best business tax climate—nineteenth. Guess where Tennessee is—twenty-seventh. Now I don’t know the love that this fellow over here has for the Big Orange. I’ll tell you I don’t like their football, I don’t like their basketball and that Jack Daniels is not bourbon,” Beshear said.
The two candidates also sparred over expanded gambling, which has been a source of contention since Beshear took office and arguably been the most hotly debated state issue for the past few years.
In 2007, then-candidate Beshear said he would get expanded gaming passed to help buoy the struggling horse industry. The governor has fought mightily to get video lottery terminals at racetracks as a way to tap into a much-needed revenue stream, however, the measure has failed repeatedly in the GOP-controlled state Senate under Williams’ control.
Beshear said other states that compete with Kentucky’s horse industry have passed some form of expanded gaming and offer better breeder’s incentives and purses at their tracks.
“It is time we keep our entertainment dollars at home,” he said. “The governor of West Virginia a year ago told me, ‘keep up what you’re doing because I love getting your money up here because it’s helping us to improve the quality of life for our people’. That’s stupid. It is time we step up as a state and do what we need to do.”
In response, Williams, who is opposed to expanded gaming, publicly challenged the governor to support a state constitutional amendment to institute the policy. Instead of pushing it through the General Assembly, the Senate president said the amendment would gauge support and resolve the issue.
“If people are publicly committed to putting it on the ballot, then put it on the ballot and then you will see how complicated an issue that it is,” Williams said.
Political observers have noted the potential national tint to the race and outside contributions that could play a role if Williams can close the 21-point gap in the polls. When questions turned to the role of federal regulations, Williams pounced on Beshear’s support of President Barack Obama. Although Beshear famously opposed oversight of coal regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency during the January “State of the State” address, the governor added some regulation is necessary in other areas.
However, Williams positioned himself as seeking less regulation on all fronts and promised that if elected governor he would stand against unfair federal restrictions and take the president to court over the health care reform bill.
“I don’t want the federal drug administration on our farms. I don’t want the EPA on our farms. I think food safety ought to be consolidated in the department of Agriculture,” he said. “The people in Washington and especially Barack Obama, who Gov. Beshear supports, think that the federal government created the states. Well I’ve got news for them. The states created the federal government.”
On education, Williams once again slammed Jefferson County Public School board and Beshear for allegedly being controlled the teacher’s union. The governor told reporters at a press conference held afterward some of his best friends are public school teachers who teach future generations, but denied being under their direct influence.
Beshear told farm board members he has tried to pass “a common-sense bill” to improve education by raising the state’s school dropout age from 16 to 18, but that “one person” has stood in the way, alluding to Williams.
The Senate president said the bill was an “unfunded mandate” and a simplistic answer to failing schools in the state.
Beshear and Williams are scheduled to appear together again at the Fancy Farm picnic in Graves County on August 6.