By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
It might have been a preview of next year’s Kentucky governor’s election — but county officials here for a convention probably didn’t expect one likely candidate to endorse a potential opponent.
Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who has announced he’s running for governor, and Republican Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who says he will announce “my intentions” at next month’s Fancy Farm Picnic, both addressed the annual Kentucky County Judge/Executives and Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners meeting.
Republican Hal Heiner is the only other announced candidate for governor but others, like Republican Cathy Bailey and Democrats like House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, are also considering running.
On Thursday Conway got to go first but Comer may have gotten off the best line when he spoke later.
Noting that Conway had spoken to the group, Comer said, “I’m supporting him in the Democratic primary. I just want everyone to know that,” as the crowd laughed.
Both men clearly want the support of the local officials, and both made their pitches. Conway concentrated a bit more on his accomplishments as Attorney General, noting his successful prosecutions of cyber-crimes and purveyors of prescription pain pills; collection of Medicaid fraud payments; and successful civil suits against pharmaceutical companies and some for-profit colleges.
He acknowledged he’s running for governor and told the crowd that next year’s candidates for governor “need to have a forward-looking dialogue” about Kentucky’s future and the problems it confronts.
Top among those issues, Conway said, is education.
“We are pricing a whole generation of middle class kids out of a college education,” he said.
Later Comer would address the same issue. But Comer wants a dialogue between employers and universities to make sure students are learning skills they can use in the work world.
Conway also wants to address education in earlier years, noting that Kentucky has an “unsustainable” level of seven-year-olds who can’t read at grade level.” He said prison officials can often accurately predict future incarceration rates through such education statistics.
He said Kentucky has done a good job in enrolling lower income children in health care programs and the state should find ways to use those opportunities to direct the same children to early childhood education programs.
Afterward, Conway told reporters it will be difficult to find the funding to lower college tuition costs and expand early childhood education but lawmakers and the governor must find a way to do it. He mentioned the possibility of expanded gaming but didn’t talk about tax increases.
He also said universities need to find ways to reduce unneeded duplication of programs and find efficiencies in their operations.
Comer said his top priority would be job creation but he wants to focus on higher paying jobs “that pay a living wage and good benefits.” He told reporters afterward the state needs to review all of its incentive programs for business and industry to make sure they’re attracting such jobs and not just lower wage positions.
In addition to job creation and involving employers in education, Comer called for two frequent Republican proposals: repeal of the prevailing wage law and passage of a right-to-work law. He said those will allow Kentucky to compete for new industries and businesses on more favorable terms with surrounding states like Tennessee and Indiana.
Heiner also supports right-to-work legislation and repeal of prevailing wage.
Comer, unlike some Republicans, has in the past enjoyed the support of the Kentucky Education Association. He was asked after his speech if he thought his support for right-to-work and repealing prevailing wage might alienate KEA.
He responded by saying those issues don’t directly affect teachers and that he will continue to seek KEA’s support.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.