By: John David Dyche
Governor Beshear recently presented his biennial budget to the General Assembly. In his budget address he said his plan filled him with "intense regret" because "the choices reflected in this document do great harm to many state programs and services needed by Kentuckians."
Then why make those choices?
The budget is the governor's chance to clearly express his priorities and values. He should outline a budget that he believes best for the commonwealth. If the legislature disagrees, so be it, but there is no reason Beshear should offer anything of which he is not proud.
Beshear's budget "makes damaging cuts in many areas in order to keep Kentucky at the forefront of educational attainment in this nation." But he did not make the case that funneling more money into favored education programs will actually produce better results.
Kentucky has leapt ahead of many other states "in measures of student performance and policy reform," Beshear said. Yet the former happened even as we effectively reduced per-pupil spending, and the latter is an overstatement since Kentucky still resists reforms like charter schools, merit pay, and tougher tenure.
Beshear's budget proposes "to expand pre-school services" because, he says, "research shows that kids who attend pre-school are more likely to hit the ground running in kindergarten and succeed later in school and in the workplace." Really?
Some small studies suggest that certain models of early childhood education might produce positive outcomes. The comprehensive Department of Health and Human Services Head Start Impact Study calls the effectiveness of such preschool into serious question, however.
Beshear cuts higher education while saying it "deserves more support, not less." He explains that, "There simply is no way to create enough money to make the needed investments in pre-K through 12th grade unless higher education is included in the reductions."
The comment about "creating money" is especially curious since his budget includes $1.9 billion in new debt and boosts the state's debt to over 7 percent of the General Fund. But Beshear believes "there's never been a better time to borrow." Maybe, but a recent study by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University already ranks Kentucky 40th among the states for its overall fiscal condition.
Beshear is willing to effectively raise one tax – the gasoline tax – to build roads. He euphemistically calls that stabilizing gas tax revenue, but he would prevent the tax from going down.
But apparently the many other pressing needs he cites are simply not important enough to warrant a tax increase. He claims he is cutting essential things, but they are obviously not so important that he is willing to call on Kentuckians to pay for them.
Part of the problem is anemic economic growth. Yet in sparing economic development from the five percent cuts made to other agencies, Beshear bragged about "our highly successful job creation efforts."
Wow! 36,405 fewer people are employed in Kentucky than at this time last year. The 8 percent seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is unchanged from last year, higher than the national average, and higher than all but a few states' rates. If that is success, we dare not imagine failure!
Beshear says that "tax modernization and expanded gaming" are "alternatives that would allow a lot more progress and a lot more investment with a lot less damage to needed services." Seven years into his term, however, we still await a proposal on taxes and he still has not fulfilled his unconditional 2007 promise to pass casino gambling.
"We must answer a fundamental question," the governor says. "Does Kentucky march aggressively into the future, or do we cower under the covers as the world leaves us behind? Do we lead, or are we too afraid to even follow?"
That is actually two questions, of course, but, regardless, Beshear says, "This budget proposal clearly gives my answer: We lead." Baloney!
Real leadership would have passed gambling as promised and taken on tax reform long ago. Real leadership would back policies that would actually improve student achievement, help create jobs, and encourage economic growth. And real leadership would propose a budget that is in the state's best interests, along with the means pay for it, while sparing us lamentations about "intense regret" at "damaging cuts."
Let's hope for some real leadership when the new governor presents Kentucky's next budget in January of 2016. Until then, the answer to Governor Beshear's "fundamental question" is that Kentucky remains afraid to even follow.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and a political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.