By BRUCE SCHREINER
Associated Press Writer
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Democratic challenger Steve Beshear clashed over casino gambling and a stalemated special legislative session in a feisty forum Thursday.
The hour-long discussion before Kentucky's county judge-executives and magistrates was the first face-off between the two candidates running for governor in the Nov. 6 election and foreshadowed a hard-hitting campaign to come.
Beshear accused Fletcher of lacking leadership and took a swipe at the incumbent for a hiring scandal that led to the governor's indictment by a special grand jury on patronage charges, which eventually were dismissed in a deal with prosecutors.
"People are crying out for honest, competent, experienced leadership with integrity for a change in Frankfort," Beshear said.
Fletcher took credit for a list of accomplishments, including shoring up Kentucky's finances, putting more state money into education and overhauling the state tax code.
But the sharpest exchanges revolved around expanded gambling.
Beshear, a former attorney general and lieutenant governor, stressed his support for allowing Kentuckians to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment permitting limited casino gambling, saying it alone would raise the necessary revenue to move Kentucky forward. He projects that the proposal would generate more than $500 million a year in extra state tax revenue.
Proposals to put the issue of expanded gambling on Kentucky's ballot have made no headway in past General Assembly sessions.
Fletcher, a Republican running for a second term, adamantly said that such expanded gambling would not happen "on my watch." He called it a "false promise" that would create a host of social ills - including higher rates of crime, divorce and prostitution.
"We want that to stay in Vegas," Fletcher said. "What happens there, needs to stay in Vegas and not be in Kentucky."
Fletcher came out with his strong stand against casino gambling last month. Before then, the governor said he was personally opposed to casino gambling but would leave the issue up to the voters if a gambling referendum made it on the ballot.
The governor said casinos would cause economic harm by diverting spending from existing businesses and wouldn't deliver the projected revenue.
"I want to build this state's future on real promises, the kind of jobs you want your children and grandchildren to have," he said.
Beshear dismissed Fletcher's claims of casino-generated social ills as "a bunch of baloney." The Democratic challenger said that communities in other states that offer casino gambling are thriving and the states have benefited from the revenue windfall.
"It can be limited, it can be run well," he said. "It is safe, and it's not going to create all of the bad things that the governor wants you to think it will create."
Fletcher also warned that other states that allowed the introduction of casino gambling have seen a proliferation of gambling in ensuing years.
Beshear countered that he wants to keep casino gambling limited to a combination of race tracks along with two to four freestanding locations near Kentucky's borders. Beshear said he would support a local option for communities if casino gambling is legalized.
As an enticement to his audience, Beshear pledged to designate a percentage of expanded gambling revenues to local communities to assist with infrastructure and economic development.
The two candidates stood next to each other before a room full of local officials, and sparred almost from the outset. Each candidate had a personal cheering section that broke into applause routinely after their respective responses.
Fletcher and Beshear also had sharp exchanges over the stalled legislative session.
The governor called the session to deal with such issues as tax incentives for energy companies, domestic partner benefits for university employees and income tax breaks for military personnel. Lawmakers disagreed whether the session was necessary, and the Democrat-led House adjourned shortly after the session convened without taking action. Fletcher ordered a three-week cooling-off period and says he'll bring lawmakers back to the Capitol on July 30.
Fletcher linked Beshear with House Democrats and said lawmakers walked away from an energy incentive plan that could create thousands of jobs by enticing an energy company to build a plant in Kentucky to convert coal into fuel.
Beshear accused Fletcher of failing to win consensus among lawmakers before calling the session, resulting in "wasted chaos" at a cost to taxpayers. Beshear said the House passed an energy bill in this year's regular session and accused Senate Republicans of killing it. Fletcher said the regular-session bill wouldn't have attracted the investment by energy companies.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Jody Richards said Thursday he is trying to set up a meeting with Peabody Energy's chief executive officer, Gregory H. Boyce, to discuss a possible incentive package for the company to build a plant that would convert coal to a cleaner burning fuel.
Richards invited Fletcher and Senate President David Williams to be a part of the meeting, which would be held in St. Louis before the end of the month.
Fletcher said he'd be happy to meet with Peabody executives.
"We're open to doing whatever we can to show we can't pass up this opportunity," he said.
In a reply to Richards' letter, Williams said he didn't see the need for a meeting in St. Louis unless House Democrats were "trying to create cover" for failing to vote on the energy bill. Williams, R-Burkesville, said a Peabody executive previously indicated he would recommend to investors that the plant be built in Kentucky if the incentives are passed.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)