Attorney General Andy Beshear sat down with Herald staff Thursday afternoon to talk about issues facing Kentucky and his campaign for governor.
Beshear discussed higher education funding, the lawsuit between the Herald and WKU, and plans to deal with issues such as human trafficking, pension and Kentucky’s drug epidemic.
Beshear said he believes Kentucky needs to significantly increase its funding for higher education to make it affordable for all Kentuckians.
“You shouldn’t have to mortgage the next 30 years of your life, take on crushing student debt, to get the type of education that we need so many more Kentuckians to get,” he said.
Kentucky higher education has faced multiple cuts under Gov. Matt Bevin. In his two-year budget proposal last January, Bevin announced his plans to cut the state’s allocation to public colleges and universities by 6.25 percent. In 2016, Bevin bypassed the state legislature to cut $41 million in education funding and lost a lawsuit filed by Beshear for doing so.
At a higher education conference in 2017, Bevin urged public colleges and universities to look for programs to cut.
Beshear said he believes the state government should view public universities as partners, beginning that partnership by looking first at whether they have all the courses they need, rather than cutting courses.
“Our universities are a critical partner in ensuring that we can lead in the economy of the future and not simply struggle to survive with the economy of the present,” he said. “I believe that a Kentucky student should be able to go to college and ultimately select any major. . . and the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding what major you can and cannot select.”
WKU has been undergoing an academic program review this year to evaluate program effectiveness and performance. In a meeting with the Herald editorial board last week, President Timothy Caboni said part of the purpose of the review is to determine how the university can do things more efficiently, which may result in program cuts.
“We will not have helicopters flying down from Frankfort dropping large bags of money on the campus for us to do what we want to do,” Caboni said. “Therefore, without that, we have to figure out as an institution how we take our scarce resources and deploy them where we’re going to be more successful as a university.”
Beshear said as attorney general, he is the guardian of Kentucky’s open records and open meetings laws, and he intervened in the lawsuit between WKU and the Herald because the effectiveness of the Open Records Act was at issue.
“The position of the universities would turn [open records] into a ‘trust me’ law,” Beshear said. “I believe in a strong open records law, and I believe in leading by example.”
Beshear spoke specifically about the lawsuit between WKU and the Herald, which concerns access to university records about sexual misconduct.
WKU sued the Herald in February 2017 to appeal an order from Beshear as the Kentucky attorney general, who ruled WKU had to turn over records of sexual misconduct to the newspaper.
WKU has repeatedly held the position that it should not have to provide the Herald documents related to employee sexual misconduct because the student information in those documents is protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.
WKU’s attorneys have said releasing the sexual misconduct documents violates FERPA because of the information in the documents that identifies students who may have been victims or witnesses.
Beshear said the pace of any lawsuit is determined by the judge. He mentioned other lawsuits between the University of Kentucky and its student newspaper newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, and another one between Kentucky State University and a former student.
“We had to file three [lawsuits] because if we truly want to address the culture of sexual assault that occurs on campuses, administrations have to be transparent about how they respond to those assaults,” Beshear said.
Beshear said he believes that tackling the issue of sexual assault is not just limited to the university level. In November 2018, Kentucky state Rep. Jeff Hoover was accused of inappropriate sexual contact by a former legislative staffer.
Beshear said he found the allegations against Hoover during the deposition to be unacceptable and horrific.
“People have to held responsible for those types of actions,” Beshear said. “The example we set as officials is critical; you can’t have government officials engaging in the type of action that would get everyone else fired at work.
Handling sexual assault, human trafficking
A major focus of Beshear’s during his three years as attorney general has been addressing human trafficking and sexual assault, which he said is a cultural problem in Kentucky and the United States.
“Our statistics are nearly one in two Kentucky women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime,” Beshear said. “It’s unacceptable. We must make change, and we must make it in our lifetime.”
Beshear said he thinks the most significant progress made is addressing Kentucky’s rape kit backlog. When Beshear took office in 2016, there were 3,173 untested rape evidence kits across the state. Beshear said every one of those has been through the first round of testing, and so far three indictments have come from that testing, including one from an assault that occurred in 1983.
“We have to try the harder cases,” Beshear said. “We have to dig deeper, and we have to investigate them differently.”
Beshear also spoke about human trafficking, which statistics show is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, according to the Department of Defense. He said the key to addressing the issue is raising awareness.
“The very first human trafficking victim that we rescued when I was attorney general was the Thursday before [the Kentucky] Derby in 2016, and because of the call a hotel clerk made, we were able to make that save,” he said.
Some steps the attorney general’s office has taken include training hotel workers how to recognize trafficking victims and working to pass a bill requiring every person who gets their commercial driver’s license to be trained to recognize and report trafficking.
Touching on a recently popular topic of discussion, Beshear said he is for expanded gaming, including casino gaming, sports gambling and online gambling, including fantasy sports and online poker. He said he wants to dedicate 100 percent of revenue from that industry to the pension systems.
“The pension systems are chronically underfunded, and this would create a dedicated, new revenue stream that doesn’t raise anybody’s taxes that would make a real and substantial difference,” he said.
Beshear said he believes expanded gaming in the forms listed above could bring up to $500-$550 million a year to the pension system and help its solvency.
While the first step to addressing Kentucky’s poorly funded pension system is finding and providing significant new funding, Beshear said the way the legislature is currently having conversations excludes the very people who need to be a part of them.
“Right now they’re bragging about having a bipartisan legislative committee, but those are only legislatures,” he said. “Those are the very people who have funded their own pensions while not funding the other pensions. . . If there are going to be any changes, both sides have to not only be at the table, but in agreement.
Addressing Kentucky’s opioid crisis
Concerning Kentucky’s heroin and opioid epidemic, Beshear said prescription pills are its driving force. He said the Opioid Disposal Program, which was launched by his office in 2017, has the ability to reduce and reverse the rate of new addiction in the state.
The program is in the pilot stage in four counties: Floyd, Henderson, McCracken and Perry.
Keeping his stance that opioids stem as the root of the drug problem in Kentucky, Beshear said he has sued nine opioid manufacturers and distributors.
“If we’re going to have the funding to have that transformational moment where we can have prevention efforts, where everyone who is addicted can get treatment, where we can support recovery where people don’t fall back into addiction, those that have profited in the hundreds of billions of dollars can be accountable,” he said.