Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin touted economic development efforts and strategies moving forward at a forum in Hopkinsville on Monday, following the announcement of the groundbreaking for the $305 million Novelis aluminum facility in neighboring Todd County. A large portion of the conversation addressed education issues and a question was asked about the recent Supreme Court ruling on sports betting.
Bevin credited the success of bringing Novelis and other companies to Kentucky through efforts to "out-hustle" competing states through policies that include the recently enacted, and controversial, right-to-work law. Bevin said the advantage of the law "is to not be held hostage by a union that may not be looking out for the best advantage of the employees or the company." He added, after some dissent, that he is not disparaging unions, but explained that one-third of businesses simply wouldn't consider Kentucky without the law in place and likened it to 'fishing in a bigger pond.' Opponents of the law say it weakens unions drives down wages. Bevin says that is "nonsense."
Democratic 1st District congressional candidate Paul Walker asked if education is important to develop a skilled workforce, then why has state appropriation continued to decline for higher ed. Bevin said the state is required to have a balanced budget. He said over the last 10-15 years this has slowly, but surely declined and is a trend that will continue not only in Kentucky but around the country.
"[Murray State University President] Bob Davies is a great guy. He's doing a lot of innovative things with an increasingly tight budget. And Murray State has actually struggled with competition from other surrounding states and even with other schools in this state. So even though it's a better and better school, literally, in many respects, the quality of the education, the quality of the campus, so many of the things that make it attractive. It has still been struggling more than others," Bevin said, adding the demographic issues are bigger than money from the state. He said the relatively new performance funding model could help Murray State.
"The expectation that the state, the taxpayers, are going to continue to subsidize and fund higher education to the same degree, it's just not going to happen," Bevin said, "Because the money isn't there." He said the job at the state level is to take that finite amount and spend it wisely across various methods of education to get the best return on investment.
"There's no question that a higher education is a very desirable thing. But it's not a silver bullet. It's not a magic ticket to ride. And there's increasingly any number of kids coming out of public and private post-secondary universities with degrees who can't find jobs because they have no real skills," he said. As governor, he said it's his responsibility to be the best steward he can of the money needed to fund post-secondary education.
Increasingly, the workforce needs of the 21st century increasingly require some kind of post-secondary education, but increasingly won't need to be a four-year degree, Bevin said. The vocational system is coming back, he said, noting plumbers and electricians are aging and that those jobs will need to be filled. Changes on this front can be made as early as the middle-school level, he said.
"We are putting more money right now into K-12 education... than has ever been put into it in the history of Kentucky, period," Bevin said. Cutbacks at the administrative levels are not unique to Christian County, he said and added that at the end of the day the reason taxpayers pay the money is to educate children. "And we do need some administrative oversight," he said, "But I will tell you there's far more administrative oversight at far more cost that's coming at the expense of actually educating children than we need." He pointed to administrative costs and literacy issues in the Jefferson County School District, which is facing a potential state takeover.
He questioned whether it was necessary for the community colleges, for instance, to each have their own administrators with the same positions and if that could be consolidated.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a federal law preventing states from legalizing sports betting is unconstitutional. Bevin said he's glad to see the ruling come down, not because he's a proponent of sports betting, but rather states rights. He said sports wagering already exists in Kentucky, pointing to the recent Kentucky Derby.
"What I am not a proponent of personally... I don't see the political appetite statewide and certainly from the majority to support the idea of casino gaming, for example, and expanding legalized gambling in the state," Bevin said. "The idea that we're going to use those moneys that we're going to pay for the things that ail us is a sucker's bet." He questions its efficacy in places like Atlantic City, which has seen an economic decline. Some state lawmakers proposed this past session legalizing casino gaming to help fund the ailing pension system.
"It ultimately becomes a regressive tax on the people who can least afford it," Bevin said. Instead of investing in casinos, he said, he'd rather invest in the next Novelis (aluminum company opening in Guthrie).