- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Democrat Jack Conway vowed Friday to boost spending on early childhood education as Kentucky’s gubernatorial candidates made early pitches to a gathering of county officials. Republican Matt Bevin refrained from spending promises, offering a dose of what he sees as financial reality.

“I could sit here and blow smoke to you about how I’m going to give you this, I’m going to give you that,” Bevin said. “Where is the money going to come from? At the end of the day, all these things that you need and want have got to be paid for.”

The candidates offered contrasting messages in speeches to the influential group of judge-executives and magistrates from across Kentucky. Both had cheering sections in the first joint appearance of their campaign to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

Conway is completing his second term as the state’s attorney general. Bevin is a Louisville businessman.

In his speech, Conway stressed the need to invest in all levels of education but focused on early childhood education as a priority.

“Educating a person is like building a house,” he said. “You lay the foundation first and you build from there. So we are going to invest in early childhood education in a way that you have not seen before.”

Conway later told reporters that his focus would be on expanding early childhood education for children living in poverty.

“That, to me, is how you break the cycle of poverty,” he said.

During his speech, Conway said his commitment to early childhood development is “a big point of departure” between the candidates.

Democrats are trying to capitalize on Bevin’s comments about early childhood education at a debate among GOP gubernatorial candidates this spring. Bevin said in the debate that early childhood education helps children in first and second grades but that those gains are wiped out after that.

Bevin said Friday that claims he doesn’t support early childhood education are “absolute bunk.”

The Republican said funding allocations from preschool through college need to be scrutinized. And he recommended changes in the way the state distributes money for higher education to ensure students are ready to fill skilled jobs.

“It’s largely allocated due to politics,” Bevin said. “We need outcomes-based funding.”

Conway also sounded ready to make some changes to the state’s higher-education system.

“We’re going to do a better job of making certain that our higher education institutions act as a system for the benefit of one another and not against one another,” he said.

Conway also tried to show his independence from national Democrats. He noted that as attorney general he joined Kentucky in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for regulating carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“I am going to keep fighting that fight because coal is an important part of the economy of eastern and western Kentucky,” Conway said.

Kentucky is among the nation’s top coal producers, but thousands of coal jobs have disappeared in the state’s eastern coal fields in recent years.

In Kentucky’s marquee campaign last year, now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed the coal issue in capitalizing on President Barack Obama’s unpopularity in Kentucky. McConnell focused on Obama more than his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in winning re-election.

Conway said he plans to unveil his jobs plan next week. Bevin took a jab at what he sees as Conway’s slow pace in offering policy specifics.

“Good for him - four months and change before the actual general election to recognize that maybe he owes that to the voters of Kentucky,” Bevin told reporters.

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