Friday, January 11, 2002

Stay the course, Patton says

Governor plans no new initiatives, spending

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT — With Kentucky facing its largest budget shortfall in history, Gov. Paul Patton announced no major initiatives or new spending during his State of the Commonwealth address Thursday.

        Instead, he dwelled on past successes and achievements, such as improvements in education, and stayed away from the controversial topic of expanding casino gambling to thoroughbred race tracks.

        Mr. Patton admitted he was wrong about two previous issues — workers comp and seat belt laws. He said laws in those areas need to be changed during the three-month legislative session that opened Tuesday.

        “There are things that government is supposed to do,” Mr. Patton told a joint session of the General Assembly during the 40-minute speech. “And we're doing them right. Kentucky's moving forward at every level of education and it's our joint efforts making that possible.”

        Mr. Patton mentioned an increase in test scores and the 39 percent jump in community and technical college enrollment achieved since he pushed through a higher education reform bill in 1996.

        The speech was a marked change from past years, when Kentucky's budget was flush with millions of dollars in surpluses. The slowing economy is forcing cuts of more than $700 million in the budget Mr. Patton will deliver Jan. 22.

        “This budget will be in stark contrast to my last two proposals,” Mr. Patton said. “This new recommendation will attempt to maintain our current commitments to progress with fewer resources.”

        Northern Kentucky lawmakers had hoped to receive money to build an arena at Northern Kentucky University and a museum at Big Bone Lick State Park in Boone County, as well as funds to begin the development of Covington's western riverfront. But Mr. Patton did not mention any projects in his speech.

        “I understand that. The money isn't there,” said House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder.”

        The budget shortfall could create support for the expansion of casino-style gambling to Kentucky's thoroughbred race tracks. The horse industry says it needs gambling to compete with riverboat casinos in Indiana and Illinois. By some estimates, gambling could generate $200 million or more in tax revenue for the state.

        But a coalition of religious leaders is gearing up to defeat the issue on moral grounds. Mr. Patton has not taken a stand on the issue.

        Mr. Patton also:

        • Pledged to help repeal of a bill approved in the last session dealing with the cost of prescriptions under Medicaid.

        The law requires the state to raise the fee paid to pharmacists to $5.88 per prescription this year. Mr. Patton wants to freeze the cost at its current $4.51. The increase would cost the state's cash-strapped Medicaid program $20 million more per year.

        “That's a terrible law and I'm glad to hear the governor wants to do something about it,” said Rep. Jon Draud, R-Crestview Hills.

        • Said he would support a law that would require local zoning approval before a power plant could be built. The bill is partially inspired by the fight Kenton County residents waged to prevent Cinergy Corp. from building a plant near Crescent Springs last summer. Mr. Draud said he will co-sponsor that legislation.

        • Offered support for a bill that would allow consumers to block most phone calls from telemarketers.

        In 1996 Mr. Patton pushed changes in workers' compensation that decreased premiums businesses pay and made it harder for workers to prove injuries. But it also all but eliminated successful black lung disease claims in the system. Black lung is a breathing ailment suffered by many coal miners in Mr. Patton's native eastern Kentucky.

        Mr. Patton said the the system should be changed so miners who are sick are appropriately compensated, adding that the original reforms went too far.

        But state Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, said altering the workers comp law could hurt the state's economic development efforts because businesses may be concerned about the potential rise of workers' comp insurance premiums if changes are made.

        “The governor said his changes only affect coal, but that won't be the case,” Mrs. Stine said. “It will carry over into other businesses.”

        Mrs. Stine said she also disagreed with some of Mr. Patton's glowing comments about the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), a landmark education reform bill passed in 1990.

        Because KERA mandated more financial equity among school districts, property-rich districts such as many in Northern Kentucky now receive less state funding than they did before the reforms.

        “KERA has robbed Northern Kentucky schools of significant amounts of funding,” Mrs. Stine said. “That's not something I would be proud of.”

        In previous sessions, Mr. Patton also opposed making seat belt use a primary offense for which law enforcement officers may stop and cite motorists. He said he was wrong about that, too.

        “Name me one other thing we can do this session that will save 75 lives a year and not cost the state treasury one dime in increased expense,” Mr. Patton said.

        Mr. Patton endorsed a proposal by House Majority Floor Leader Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, that includes a tax of one-half cent on bottles, cans and fast-food containers, plus an additional fee on trash taken to landfills. He said the cost for each person would be minimal.

        The only groundbreaking proposal included in Patton's speech was to create a 120-mile Pine Mountain Trail along Kentucky's southeastern border.

        The Pine Mountain Trail would be 1,000 feet wide. He proposed using money from existing places to buy whatever tracts that would not be donated.

       The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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