- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Ahead of next week’s primary election, Democrats running for Kentucky governor promised during a debate Wednesday to push for increased state funding for higher education.

During the hourlong televised debate - their second one this week - candidates called for expanding election laws to allow Kentuckians more time to vote. They said state-based tax incentives should be awarded to companies in high-growth sectors offering generous salaries.

And they talked in broad terms about what they hope their legacy would be if elected in November.

Except for a mild jab or two, the three leading candidates - Andy Beshear, Adam Edelen and Rocky Adkins - avoided attacking one another. There was a new dynamic in their latest debate - frequent candidate Geoff Young also participated. The state’s primary election is Tuesday.

The debate on the University of Kentucky’s campus in Lexington aired on Gray Television stations in the region. The Democrats are looking for a chance to unseat Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who is seeking a second term.

Asked what they’d do to make higher education more affordable, Beshear said he would propose funding higher education “in a way you haven’t seen in the past decade.” But he’d put conditions on increased state support, he said.

“We’re going to demand that it go to lowering tuition,” said Beshear, the state’s attorney general. “That’s something our students deserve.”

Edelen, a former state auditor, said rising tuition amounts to a “tax on hope” by putting higher education out of reach for more Kentuckians.

About two-thirds of public university budgets in Kentucky were funded by the state when he was in college, he said. Now, state funding accounts for about one-third of overall funding, he said. Edelen said he’d lead the push in urging Kentuckians to choose more affordable college over a tax code “riddled” with special-interest loopholes that cost the state needed tax revenue.

“When we have priced higher education out of the reach of the working and middle classes, not only have we made an immoral statement about who and what we are, we have signed our economic suicide note,” Edelen said.

Adkins also stressed that more state money needs to go into higher education. The veteran state lawmaker denounced any use of a performance-based plan, where colleges and universities would get state tax dollars based on performance criteria.

“I think it’s wrong,” Adkins said. “I think it pits one university against the other.”

Young called for higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for more higher education funding.

On another issue, Beshear said if elected he’d sign an executive order automatically restoring voting rights for all nonviolent offenders.

Beshear also called for revamping state election laws to allow, among other things, for polls to be open longer. Adkins agreed, saying: “This is one of the toughest states in America as far as access to voting.”

Beshear, Edelen and Adkins also reiterated their support for legalizing medical marijuana. Beshear said that besides helping ease suffering, medical marijuana could generate about $50 million in state tax revenue. That brought a mild rebuke from Edelen.

“I think medical marijuana, by its very definition, is medicine,” Edelen said. “And I’ll never be a governor that supports taxing medicine.”

When asked about efforts to limit abortion access, Beshear and Edelen reiterated that they support abortion rights, with Edelen saying Bevin and Republican legislators are promoting a “radical anti-woman agenda.” Beshear said he would veto any bill coming out of the legislature that threatens “reproductive freedom.” Young said it’s the state’s role to ensure access to abortion. Adkins called himself “pro-life” but said there is no question that states under the law must provide access to abortion.

Meanwhile, candidates were asked what legacy they would want to leave behind if elected governor.

Adkins said he wanted to offer free community and technical college tuition and help people in hard-hit regions like eastern Kentucky by diversifying their economies. The region has long relied on coal. Beshear stressed the importance of access to health care, higher wages and defeating the opioid epidemic. Edelen said he wants to give Kentuckians “the opportunity to realize your version of the American dream in the part of Kentucky you call home.” He emphasized renewable energy jobs and better broadband access.

Young stressed giving workers more say at their workplace and strengthening small businesses and labor unions.

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