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Bluegrass Beacon: The politics of priorities

The recent gubernatorial-campaign debate held at the University of Kentucky featured a statement you rarely hear uttered by a politician of either party, but especially one who portrays himself as a progressive with a spending wish list long enough to cover every inch of the 380 miles between the commonwealth’s westernmost and easternmost borders.

“Budgets are about priorities and you fund what matters to you the most,” heralded Democratic nominee and current Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Politicians hardly ever mention the “p” word because budget “priorities” by definition suggest limited resources and a recognition that some programs are more important than others.

It requires more political courage than most office-seekers can muster to deal with what still matters but matters less, and therefore might not get funded since limited resources must first be spent on what matters "most.”

That discussion is tough enough for legislative leaders during Frankfort’s biennial budget sessions but seems nigh impossible for politicians to engage in on the campaign trail with its competing priorities from voters who often, and mistakenly, think it’s government job to fund every desire and fix all problems.

The line of questioning from the debate – many from students who presumably have yet to experience the shock of opening a paycheck only to find much of it missing as a result of an unwelcome invasion by Uncle Sam’s grimy hand in the form of withheld taxes – would suggest little commitment to prioritizing spending and the inherent need to recognize what matters less.

Shouldn’t government, after all, be the alpha and omega of our entire lives and fund everything that anybody wants?

What will you, Mr. Politician, do to ensure every Kentucky toddler receives a first-class pre-K experience followed by a quality K-12 education, four-year college degree, good-paying job and a lifetime of Cadillac healthcare benefits?

What’s government going to do to solve the opioid epidemic, fix the pension crisis and provide resource officers, nurses and mental-health professionals to care for the 685,167 students in all 1,466 of the commonwealth’s public schools?

What’s Frankfort doing about prisons and Medicaid?

“We are going to fund nurses in those schools; we’re going to fund the raises that our teachers so desperately deserve,” Beshear breezily promised. “We’re going to invest in our children first because it’s the very best investment we can make.”

Doesn’t a determination that one investment is “the very best” also imply that other investments, while worthy, are of lesser priority?

‘Neither Beshear nor the teachers’-union constituencies supporting him have complained about the decision by his opponent, Gov. Matt Bevin, and supported by the legislature to spend 15 cents of every single one of the state’s General Fund dollars in the current budget on public pensions. The only way they can really believe that $3.3 billion can be spent on retirement benefits for government workers and teachers without prioritizing spending in other areas is if they think ours is a commonwealth of unlimited resources.

“Everyone of us, myself included, would love to have more dollars to put into things,” Bevin said in response to a question about reduced funding for higher education in recent budgets. “But every dollar we put into higher education is a dollar that’s going to come from what – K-12? Roads? Bridges? The bottom line is, we have a finite amount of it; it’s incumbent upon us to be good stewards of it, to make sure we train young people for jobs that truly exist.”

Spot on, Governor!

And it’s something both parties in Frankfort need to remember, whether the discussion is about funding a pay raise for teachers, Medicaid benefits for people who can work but don’t do so, broadband boondoggles or a $50 million taxpayer-backed loan for a failing hospital.

Where will the money come from?

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. He can be reached at and @bipps on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after being released to and published by newspapers statewide.

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