Candidates consider higher education

Mai Hoang

The wait to find out if either U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher or state Attorney General Ben Chandler will be the next to run Kentucky’s government ends on Tuesday.

But for Western officials and those in higher education, there are still uncertainties.

Chandler and Fletcher both say they support the higher education reforms created by Gov. Paul Patton, but university administrators are uncertain of what either candidate will do for higher education if elected.

Higher education a priority?

Robbin Taylor, director of governmental relations, said she is concerned how much a priority higher education will be among other state budget items, such as preschool to secondary education and Medicaid.

Both candidates came to Western this year and heard concerns about the higher education budget and unfunded enrollment growth, Taylor said. Both candidates have also voiced support for the Kentucky Academy of Math and Science, a initiative that will allow gifted high school students to earn college credit at Western.

“I feel confident that either candidate will be a supporter of higher education priorities, but I’m not sure how much money they’ll have at their disposal,” Taylor said. “The question is how much money will they have and where are we in line?”

Provost Barbara Burch said she wishes the candidates had talked more about their plans for higher education.

“I would hate to see all the progress made pushed backward by higher education not being a priority for whoever is governor,” she said. “I worry and hope that whoever is elected will maintain a strong commitment to higher education.”

Chandler, the Democratic candidate, said he will try to find money for higher education.

“I’m going to work with the presidents of our colleges and universities to make sure that we have a budget that doesn’t cause pain,” he said.

But he said he does not have details on how to do that.

Fletcher spokesman Wes Irvin said the Republican would support higher education.

“He wants to make sure college and higher education remains affordable and accessible,” Irvin said.

Fletcher could not be reached for comment.

Political science professor John Parker said it’s not surprising that neither candidate has talked much about higher education.

“It may be that they think that there isn’t much political millage in higher education,” he said. “That’s not the message of the day they’re stressing.”

In this election, it may be hard for anyone in the higher education community or anywhere else to distinguish the candidates, Parker said.

“I don’t feel like I have a clear vision of what one candidate has over another,” he said. “It’s a guess on our part which interest each candidate would be receptive to.”

Finding revenue with no new taxes

President Gary Ransdell said he is concerned that neither candidate is considering increasing taxes to produce revenue and help the state budget shortfall of $262.4 billion.

“We cannot cover the deficit of $300 million and do much to help fund the state priorities of education and Medicaid if your only source of revenue is what you take away from the other state budgets,” Ransdell said.

Chandler said increasing taxes would not be the most efficient way to generate revenue.

“We’re just having a terrible economy,” Chandler said. “All you do when you raise taxes, you further depress people’s interest in fueling the economy.”

Irvin said Fletcher has plans to modernize the tax system.

“The current tax code was built around farmers,” he said. “We need a tax code that revolves around the new economy.”

Fletcher is not for stand-alone tax increases, but rather examining all the taxes together and picking which would need to be changed, Irvin said.

Chandler said he wants to eliminate inefficiencies in the current state budget because such cuts can produce revenue.

Reforming the operating budgets of Medicaid, collecting debts owed to the state and reducing state employees through attrition will produce some revenue, he said.

Fletcher plans to reform the Medicaid system to generate revenue, Irvin said. Fletcher also wants to make sure that all revenues generated from current taxes are going toward high priority items that include higher education.

“You just want to make sure you’re growing revenues and that you’re adequately funding programs,” Irvin said.

Burch said she does not think cutting dollars in existing budgets is an effective way to gain revenue.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to find the dollars they need to respond to educational and health needs just by being more efficient,” Burch said.

Ransdell said new revenue sources have to be identified.

“I fear that the problems are so huge that if there’s not a strong resolve to identify revenues, then we’re in for a difficult session,” Ransdell said.

The college vote

Both student party organizations on the Hill have tried to inform student voters about the qualifications of each candidate.

Young Democrats president Chad Aull said Chandler will benefit higher education because he supports the expansion of gaming, such as racetrack slot machines, that will help produce revenue for higher education.

He also said the Kentucky Education Association endorses Chandler.

College Republicans president Sarah Davasher said Fletcher will benefit higher education because he is focused on making the state budget more efficient.

“Well, he has a plan to restore the budget and that is, of course, why education is in such a deficit,” Davasher said.

Davasher also said Fletcher’s character is superior.

“That’s something we’ve lacked in governors in the last 30 years,” she said.

Parker said the college vote is likely not a priority for either candidate because there has been low voter turnout from college-age students in previous elections.

“A candidate has to decide where to spend their resources,” Parker said. “For the most important audience – where you can get the most bang for your buck.”

Groups such as the National Rifle Association and the Kentucky Education Association are more likely to receive attention from the candidates because they provide a greater turnout, Parker said.

Although both candidates may try to gain new voters through television advertisements, they are also focused on targeting their supporters through direct mail, telephone calls and personal visits.

“In a low turnout election, one of the keys to winning is getting your people to vote,” Parker said. “You got to mobilize those people to the polls.”

Regardless, the Young Democrats and the College Republicans have tried to encourage more Western students to vote.

Aull said he knows the potential of higher voter turnout from just Western students alone.

“If 15,000 students from Western decided to vote in the next gubernatorial race, issues that would concern students would come up,” Aull said.

Aull said Young Democrats organized registration drives and went door to door to encourage Western students to vote.

Some Western students, including Bowling Green freshman Seth Cude, don’t plan to vote.

Cude said he isn’t registered to vote and doesn’t even know who is running. He said that he doesn’t usually have time to follow politics.

“It’s just about who has more money,” he said.

Louisville junior Seth Johnson said he is voting for Chandler because he is sick of the “Bush/Fletcher economy.”

He said the economy has cost 67,000 people in Kentucky to lose their jobs – including his mother.

“I’m from a middle class family,” he said. “Fletcher’s plans will only benefit people who already have money. Chandler is working to help everyone, not just the working class. His plans won’t benefit just certain groups of people.”

Bowling Green freshman Brandy Davidson isn’t voting along party lines. A registered Democrat, Davidson said she will vote for Fletcher.

“He just seems like a nice family man,” she said. “I’m going to go with the person who I agree with in issues, not if he is a Democrat.”

Morgantown senior Patrick Abell said he hasn’t made up his mind, but is leaning toward Fletcher.

Abell is a registered Republican.

Reach Mai Hoang at [email protected]