This story was written by Blair Thomas, Kentucky Kernel
Kentucky gubernatorial candidates Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Steve Beshear faced off Monday night on issues of nursing homes and student financial aid in the last debate before next week's election.
Republican incumbent Fletcher and Democratic challenger Beshear discussed differing plans for providing financial aid to state college students to help deal with increasing tuition at the debate, which aired live from the Kentucky Educational Television headquarters.
Beshear said his Kentucky First Scholarship Program, a forgivable loan program for college graduates that would erase one year of student loans for every year the student is employed in Kentucky, is the solution "to keep the best and brightest working in the Commonwealth."
"This state has seen an 83 percent increase in tuition since 2001," Beshear said. "There are Kentucky families that can't afford to send their kids to college, and that isn't acceptable."
The financial aid program would receive funding within the first two years of his term, Beshear said.
Fletcher said he plans to implement an endowment program, which offers tax-free bonds for families to apply toward college expenses.
"This is to get sixth, seventh and eight graders on a career path and get money to help with that early," Fletcher said. "We want to sit down with those students and say, 'let's get a plan; let's get started now.' "
Also during the one-hour debate, Fletcher commended the work of his administration in improving the retention of nursing home staff. Both candidates focused on and revisited the issue of senior citizen care throughout the program.
Beshear emphasized the importance of increasing the number of inspectors in state nursing homes as well as implementing a minimum requirement for the number of employees per resident.
Fletcher said he has provided better care for senior citizens by mandating that nursing homes deficient in care and quality either improve or close. He also offered state assistance to nursing homes, which caused the number of homes cited for serious deficiencies to drop during his administration, he said.
A report published in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Oct. 22 found the number of nursing homes cited dropped from about one in four under former Gov. Paul Patton to about one in 10 under Fletcher. But Beshear didn't think it was necessarily an improvement.
"There are fewer inspectors for nursing homes now, that's why the number of cases has dropped," Beshear said.
Fletcher said he would not require an employee-to-resident ratio because of the cost of reimbursing nursing homes for their additional mandatory hires, but instead would work with the nursing homes to improve their living conditions.
Both candidates listed long-term care for senior citizens in their top legislation priorities for the 2008 General Assembly.
Fletcher said affordable and available healthcare and retirement were also top legislation priorities, and Beshear listed improving early childhood development programs and funding a senior prescription drug plan among his main legislative concerns.
The candidates also went head-to-head about regulations on mountaintop removal and damages to the environment that this form of mining causes.
"I think it is important to limit the times when mountaintop removal is used," Beshear said. "We have to keep it as an exception, as a rare time when companies aren't required to restore the land they disturb, and not as the general practice."
Fletcher agreed that it is important to enforce the laws that are in place to protect the mined areas.
"I think we do a good job of enforcing those land restoration regulations," Fletcher said. "I believe the land in most of those areas as been well restored. Yes, the mountain sees significant change, but that happens with floods and with glaciers or tornadoes or in any case of a natural disaster."
The candidates only briefly discussed bringing gambling to the state. Beshear said the gaming industry is a high priority to him because of the economic growth it would bring to the state. Fletcher is opposed to expanding gambling and has said throughout his campaign that expanded gaming won't add growth to the economy and will bring social ills with it.
© 2007 Kentucky Kernel via U-WIRE