- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - How will Kentucky’s next governor help pay for a $14 billion shortfall in public school teacher pensions and adding an extra 400,000 people to Medicaid? By cutting loose a portion of the state’s 49 state parks.

Kentucky’s two major nominees for governor said Tuesday the state should consider privatizing at least some of its public park system as a way to save money to deal with upcoming budget issues.

“We are not our best advocate for becoming the tourist destination we could be,” Republican nominee Matt Bevin said at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting in Louisville. “You know how many people drive through here on the way to somewhere else who don’t stop here? Too many. Frankly, our state parks are a little sad, some of them. That’s an area where frankly I think privatization could go a long way toward enhancing them, making them more of a destination that people would want to return to.”

Kentucky has 49 state parks and spends about $83 million a year maintaining them, according to the most recently approved budget. They include resorts with restaurants and hotels and recreational parks with camp sites and picnic shelters.

“I’ve been to a lot of our state parks and the rooms are in real dilapidated condition right now. They’re suffering from neglect,” Democratic nominee Jack Conway said. “That’s something I want to take a look at if I’m elected.”

Bevin and Conway answered questions for about an hour on the final day of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting, touching on health care, education and taxes. And they continued to snipe at each other, with Bevin taking shots at Conway’s degree from Duke University, the hated rival of the University of Kentucky’s basketball team. Conway responded by saying “at least I tell the truth about where I went to college,” a reference to Bevin including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on his LinkedIn profile even though he attended a business education program there and did not earn a degree.

On education, Conway said he wants to expand the state’s preschool program to include everyone that is eligible for Medicaid. Kentucky’s Medicaid program recently expanded to include people who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $31,000 a year for a family of four.

“If you want to break the cycle of poverty in a state like Kentucky, the science is so compelling you have to invest in those early years,” Conway said.

But Kentucky already has a preschool program for families who earn up to 160 percent of the federal poverty level. A spokesman for Conway’s campaign said that program only includes 4-year-olds and that Conway’s plan will be “more robust” 7/8— details of which would be forthcoming.

Bevin offered a more restrained approach to preschool funding, offering to pay for expanded programs in Kentucky’s failing schools.

“The truth is we don’t’ have enough money to address this even if we are good stewards with the limited dollars we have,” he said. “Let’s start where there is the greatest need.”

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