Beshear breaks campaign promises with budget cuts

What a difference two months can make.

In November 2007, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Beshear vied for student support — and won the Kernel’s endorsement — by promising to fund UK’s Top 20 Business Plan.

But last week, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear cut state universities’ budgets by 3 percent for the rest of this fiscal year and warned them to prepare for reductions as high as 12 percent for next year, the Kernel reported today.

So while Beshear the candidate was promising a $19.8 million increase for UK in 2008-09, Beshear the governor is saying the university could face up to $40 million in cuts.

If Beshear follows through on these reductions in his budget proposal this month, students will be furious — and rightly so.

The problem is not that Beshear is calling for cuts; after all, the state can’t spend money it doesn’t have. But he and his campaign team should have crunched the budget numbers before making promises that couldn’t be kept.

Considering that Beshear consistently led former Gov. Ernie Fletcher by double digits in the polls, he could have afforded to run his campaign on telling the hard truths about the state budget and warning public agencies to tighten their belts. Instead, Beshear made ambitious policy proposals based on the new revenues that would come from legalized casino gambling.

The 3 percent reductions for this year were across-the-board cuts, meaning universities got the same percentage cut as every other state agency (except K-12 education). When Beshear releases his budget proposal this month, he should try a more thoughtful and nuanced strategy.

Higher education is an investment in Kentucky’s future: The state needs more college graduates to begin attracting high-tech industries that will modernize the economy. Cutting university budgets may make economic sense now, but it will appear awfully short-sighted in a couple of decades.

Obviously, higher education will have to share the burden of any significant statewide budget cut. However, another across-the-board cut would be irresponsible and, frankly, lazy.

Finally, as students possibly face a return to the days of double-digit tuition hikes — tuition went up 15 percent in 2004-05 after a $16.5 million cut by Fletcher — we cannot overemphasize the need for them to get involved in legislative politics.

If Beshear’s budget proposal is unfair to universities, the General Assembly has the opportunity to fix it: Recall that in 2006, the legislature restored the funding for UK’s Top 20 Business Plan for this school year after Fletcher left it out. But legislators need to know that students and their families are paying attention — and will be voting in the legislative elections this fall.

The disappointment of broken promises should not discourage students from fighting for lower costs in higher education.