DANVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Improving education would be a high priority for Kentucky's gubernatorial candidates in the legislative session that begins in January.
Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Democratic challenger Steve Beshear used a televised debate at Centre College on Sunday evening
to tout their plans for improving education at all levels. Both candidates said they want to increase the salaries of public school teachers, and both offered plans to help Kentucky students afford a college education.
Fletcher said the state may need to consider a moratorium on tuition increases at public universities, while Beshear called for a program that would forgive the college loans of qualifying Kentucky students.
"It's getting to where Kentucky children can't afford to go to Kentucky colleges," Beshear said during the sometimes spirited debate aired on television stations in Bowling Green, Hazard, Lexington, Louisville and Huntington, W.Va.
Fletcher said the state has increased teacher salaries by 10.5 percent since he took office in 2003, and that he wants to continue working to bring those wages up to the national average.
Trailing in recent media polls, Fletcher also lashed out at Beshear, repeating an oft-made claim that electing him would be a step toward legalizing casinos in Kentucky.
"It's not something that we want to bring into the state," Fletcher said. "That's why so many of our church leaders are against it."
Beshear said he's running to clean up state government, pointing to the legal woes that have dogged Fletcher for more than two years.
"Kentucky government today is in a state of moral and ethical bankruptcy," Beshear said. "After four years of corruption, people all over this state are crying out for decent, moral, competent leadership for a change."
Fletcher, the first GOP governor in more than 30 years in this predominantly Democratic state, has been unable to get the focus off the scandal in which Republicans allegedly were rewarded with protected state jobs at the expense of Democrats.
At least 14 people were indicted, including the governor himself, who was charged last year with scheming to violate state hiring laws. Fletcher issued pardons to everyone but himself.
Ultimately, prosecutors dropped the misdemeanor charges against him in a deal in which he acknowledged that the evidence "strongly
indicates wrongdoing" by his administration and that the actions "were inappropriate."
The governor has since maintained that the investigation and resulting indictments were politically motivated by Democrats to lessen his chances of being re-elected.
Fletcher drew applause from a bipartisan crowd watching the debate when he said Republicans had been shut out of state jobs for years while Democrats controlled the governor's office. Even so, Fletcher said his administration carefully selected only the best and brightest job candidates, regardless of political affiliation.
"I think a lot of people would question a statement that you've surrounded yourself with best and brightest the last four years," Beshear said, drawing laughter from his supporters.
Fletcher, weakened by the hiring scandal, has tried since early in the campaign to paint the governor's race as a referendum on casinos, saying a vote for Beshear would be the same as voting for expanded gambling.
Beshear said he favors a ballot referendum that would allow voters to decide whether to change the constitution to allow casinos.
Expanding gambling at race tracks and in a handful of communities along the state's borders, Beshear contends, would generate $500 million in additional tax revenues that could be used to improve the lives of Kentuckians.
In the Centre College debate, Fletcher didn't repeat his claim that Beshear profited from the bankruptcy of Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. while hundreds of employees lost jobs and investors
lost their savings.
That had been standard rhetoric in other debates in recent weeks.
Beshear's law firm, Stites & Harbison, was hired in 1993 by the state insurance commissioner to assist in the liquidation of the bankrupt Kentucky Central. A report, prepared by independent attorneys 12 years ago, said Beshear's law firm had a conflict of interest and should have withdrawn from the case.
The report said Beshear was not directly involved, but that he had "general knowledge" of the conflict of interest that he should have turned over to former insurance commissioner.