LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky's gubernatorial candidates on
Wednesday took their squabble over gambling to an agricultural
forum where farm policy mingled with talk about legalizing casinos.
At the forum sponsored by Kentucky Farm Bureau, Republican Gov.
Ernie Fletcher and Democratic challenger Steve Beshear traded views
on such core issues as health care and education as well as more
specific farm-related issues like state regulations, rural
development and new markets for crops.
But just like at a forum last week before many of Kentucky's
county officials, the most pointed comments between Fletcher and
Beshear came as the two disagreed over casino gambling.
Fletcher, a casino foe, claimed Wednesday that the casinos would
change Kentucky's culture and wouldn't reap long-term revenues
promised by his opponent. The governor said casinos would divert
spending from existing businesses and raised concerns that it would
result in organized crime infiltrating Kentucky.
"That is not consistent with your values," Fletcher told Farm
Beshear, who supports casino gambling, said Fletcher had
"flip-flopped" on the issue.
"This is an issue that I am willing to let the people make the
choice on," Beshear said. "And until about a month ago, the
governor was, too."
Fletcher recently said he opposes putting the issue on the
ballot. Until then, he had said he personally opposed gambling but
was willing to allow Kentuckians to vote on whether to allow it.
Beshear said casino gambling should be limited to racetracks and
two or three freestanding facilities.
He projects that casino gambling could generate at least $500
million in additional tax revenues each year, which he says could
be used to improve education, health care and economic development.
He accused Fletcher of relying too heavily on selling bonds to
raise money to improve Kentucky.
"We don't need to borrow our way to prosperity because that's a
false premise," Beshear said. "All we're doing is putting debt on
our children and on our grandchildren."
Fletcher warned that gambling interests would become a
well-heeled and powerful lobbying interest in Kentucky's Capitol.
"How loud will your voice be compared to them?" he wondered.
Afterward, Adair County farmer Danny Wilkinson said he
personally opposes expanded gambling but said he had no problem
having the issue on the ballot. He expressed sympathy with
Beshear's argument that Kentucky is losing money when some of its
residents gamble at casinos in neighboring states.
"If we can keep it here, on a limited aspect, then I've got no
problem with that," he said in an interview. "But I certainly
don't want to see gambling in rural Kentucky."
Larry Thomas, a Hardin County farmer, didn't have an opinion
about casino gambling and said he thinks the issue is overplayed.
"I don't think it's a top issue with most voters in the state,"
he said. "I think they care about what's going on with health care
On farm policy, both candidates stressed using tobacco
settlement money to strengthen Kentucky agriculture. They promised
to focus on nurturing ethanol and other alternative fuels that use
raw farm products.
Both said they had no plans to raise Kentucky's cigarette tax.
Fletcher took credit for putting more money into rural roads and
making state parks a purchaser of Kentucky-raised foods. Beshear
complained that the state has diverted tobacco settlement money
supposedly earmarked for rural development to pay for unrelated
things. He said the state hasn't done enough to attract
agricultural processing plants that would use Kentucky products.
Agriculture is a $4 billion industry in Kentucky.
In the latest forum, Beshear was more aggressive in hitting
Fletcher regarding a hiring scandal in which Fletcher's
administration was accused of illegally rewarding political
supporters with state jobs.
A special grand jury returned more than two dozen indictments
during the investigation and charged Fletcher with criminal
conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination.
Fletcher's charges were later dropped after an agreement with
prosecutors. Fletcher issued a blanket pardon for everyone in his
administration, other than himself, who could have faced charges
stemming from the investigation.
"We've had an administration that seems to consider itself
above the law," Beshear said.
Fletcher called the probe a "political witch hunt."
Beshear also accused Fletcher of a failed record as governor,
noting rankings that put Kentucky near the bottom nationally in per
capita income and high tech jobs and near the top in unemployment
and health woes.
Fletcher responded that Kentucky's work force has grown under
his leadership, and he took credit for increasing state spending on
education, shoring up Medicaid and turning a budget deficit into a
surplus. He said more can be done, adding, "You don't turn this
large ship quickly."
In a swipe at his opponent, the governor linked Beshear with
House Democrats in stalling a special legislative session that
included an energy proposal offering incentives for a company that
has expressed interest in building a $3 billion plant to convert
coal to synthetic natural gas. He said the bill also includes
incentives to promote ethanol and biodiesel production that would
help Kentucky agriculture.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)