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Commentary: When Politics Pollutes Education In Kentucky

Saving for education
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Saving for education

When Gov. Matt Bevin called for a 9 percent cut in funding for higher education in the next biennium, the reasons seemed to make sense: There have been critical issues with the state pension system for well over a decade. These need to be corrected, and at first, it seemed like a fair tradeoff to reduce higher education funding, methodically, along with most other aspects of state government, to make up the pension shortfall.

However, the system of checks and balances, upon which the founders brilliantly structured the U.S. Constitution and which were integrated into Kentucky’s charter, then began to work. Democrats who control the state House of Representatives, led by the crafty Speaker of the House, Greg Stumbo, chose to restore the funds for higher education, resulting in a standoff between the House, the Republican-controlled Senate and the governor’s office.

When you have divided government, this is what happens. And in Kentucky, where the governor’s powers were trimmed decades ago in favor of a stronger General Assembly, sometimes nobody gets what he wants. This seems to be such a year.

Or rather, it seemed to be such a year until Gov. Bevin threw a wrench into the process. He issued an executive order for the eight state universities and the community college system to immediately implement a 4.5 percent cut. He did that at the end of March, in the waning days of the legislative session, which is scheduled to end next week. Attorney General Andy Beshear says the action may well be illegal.

Whether it is or not, it’s bad politics.

Until the last 50 years, higher education in Kentucky was dominated by partisan politics. Every region of the state wanted its own college.

To their credit, governors in the 1960s and ‘70s saw the danger in this kind of pork-barrel governance for higher. That has continued — at least until last month, when Gov. Bevin’s executive order seemed to turn that approach on its head.

Whether his executive order stands up under legal challenge or not, the precedent it sets is dangerous. Governors have their roles to play in education, as they do in health care, road construction, welfare and other fields.

Gov. Bevin is right that pension reform is a critical issue and needs to be solved. But it is not the state’s only priority. Maintaining the integrity of our state universities is an equal goal.

There was a time not long ago when state leaders discussed pushing UK into the top 20 state universities in the country. We can all bid that goal farewell when the academy becomes the governor’s political pawn.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal. WFPL publishes commentaries on Fridays. Read more.

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