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Runyon: Budget Troubles? Bevin Should Look To Louie Nunn's Legacy

Louie Nunn on election night 1967.
Kentucky Digital Library
Louie Nunn on election night 1967.

A Republican governor, new to the legislative process, came into office facing a $24 million (huge in those days) budget shortfall. Significant educational, social service, arts and infrastructure needs were endangered. This all happened fifty years ago this month, in January 1968.

The governor was Louie B. Nunn, a former county executive from Glasgow. He was a member of a conservative wing in the Republican Party that in those days was dominated by moderates like Sen. John Sherman Cooper, Sen. Thruston B. Morton and Jefferson County Judge Marlow Cook, who Nunn defeated in a bitter GOP primary in May 1967.

The solution to the state’s budget troubles? Nunn made a deal with his Democratic peers in the legislature and allowed a tax increase — from three to five percent in the sales tax — to be approved.

And the result was one of the most enlightened periods in modern Kentucky history.

Nunn's Legacy

When he died in 2004 at the age of 79, Nunn was saluted in The New York Times for the accomplishments of his single term. Kentucky became a national model for caring for the mentally ill, those with intellectual disabilities and juvenile delinquents. A network of 22 mental health centers was created, and “for the first time in Kentucky history, all four state psychiatric hospitals were fully accredited.”

In addition, the new revenue allowed dramatic improvement in the state’s system of public higher education. Nunn paved the way for the University of Louisville, then facing bankruptcy as a semi-private municipal university, to became a state school. For that alone, he deserves praise.

His advocacy for Kentucky Educational Television helped to create a treasure of news and public service that we still value today. He doubled the occupancy rate of lodges in the Kentucky State Parks system. The list goes on.

Not all was perfect with Nunn, which a quick visitto Wikipedia or The Courier-Journal archives, will reveal. He tried, unsuccessfully, to dismiss thousands of state employees, just because they were Democrats. His 1967 campaign against Marlow Cook included some of the most virulent bigotry against Jews and Catholics (Cook was a Roman Catholic and had support from prominent Jewish Republicans in Louisville, including Congressman John Yamuth’s grandfather, Samuel Klein.)

Nunn also echoed much of Richard Nixon’s meanest law-and-order rhetoric and helped drive a wedge between African Americans and the GOP that has not healed in 50 years.

And, after raising taxes, Nunn was never again elected to public office, despite attempts to win a Senate seat and return to the governor’s chair. “Nickel Nunn” became a common (and unfavorable) nickname among voters of both parties.

But hindsight tells us that Nunn’s courageous decision on taxes made a difference for decades.  Politically he paid the price at the ballot box, but in terms of services to Kentucky, there is no question that he did the right thing. And not one governor has since supported an increases in taxes, other than Brereton Jones, who approved the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act, which included changes in the state income tax system. Jones has never been elected to another office either.

Bevin's Short-sighted Approach

Fast forward to January 2018. The sitting Republican governor has a Republican controlled House and Senate. If he were to advocate what Louie Nunn did, he probably could pass it.

Instead, we have a parsimonious approach to dealing with revenue shortages. Seventy entities in the commonwealth are facing possible defunding, many of them not insignificant. These include the University Press of Kentucky, a nationally admired publisher of significant scholarly works. They also include the Kentucky Commission on Women, which has played a significant role in raising awareness of women’s issues in a half-century of change. Baffling is the cut for Trover Clinic in Madisonville, whose record of service is neither partisan nor insignificant.

Sometimes Bevin reminds me of a visitor from a small planet (he hails from New Hampshire) who simply doesn’t understand the rich heritage of this commonwealth or the institutions that have been vital in achieving that. Worse still, he doesn’t seem to care to understand them He also has championed some rather limited, even strange, causes like his incredible devotion to adoption services. Nothing wrong with that, but the balance between those and many others on the list are completely out of kilter.

No doubt the Governor will get what he wants now that he has a rubber stamp legislature. However, one could only wish that he had the courage to emulate the last and perhaps most successful Republican governor in history. So far, that seems pretty unlikely.

Keith L. Runyon is a retired editorial page editor and book editor of The Courier-Journal, where he worked from 1969-2012.