Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Challenges abound for GOP's Fletcher

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Republicans might as well party today to celebrate the inauguration of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky's first GOP governor in 32 years.

That's because a $700 million budget deficit, bloated state bureaucracy and divided legislature will hit the new administration the next day like a bad hangover.

Northern Kentucky Republicans say the Fletcher administration is prepared to tackle the problems it inherited from three decades of Democratic rule.

"Everybody's very excited," said Sen. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs. "None of us have really worked with a Republican governor before. It will be nice working on the Republican agenda in Frankfort with somebody that thinks the way we do."

Northern Kentucky is the Republican stronghold of Kentucky. Fletcher, 51, carried the region with a 25,000-vote margin over Democrat Ben Chandler. Fletcher took Campbell County with 64 percent of the vote, Boone County with 72 percent and Kenton County with 65 percent. Statewide, Fletcher got 55 percent.

Most of the region's lawmakers are Republican and the GOP expects to receive more money and attention from Frankfort.

"Ernie Fletcher won't forget who backed him on Election Day," Westwood said.

"This will be the first inauguration I've ever attended," said Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas. "It's going to be just so cool."

The two senators, as well as members of Fletcher's administration, say the governor's first priority will be dealing with the budget gap. In addition, there are also multimillion-dollar shortfalls in Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor people, and the state's road fund.

"Everything is in the red," Stine said.

With the General Assembly set to convene in the second week of January, Fletcher is expected to soon unveil his "tax modernization" plan. Details of the plan are sketchy and it is unclear how it would help bring in new revenue.

Some lawmakers have suggested legalizing casino gambling and increasing cigarette taxes. Fletcher has not embraced those proposals, though he has said he may consider an increase in the 3-cents-a-pack cigarette tax as long as some other taxes can be reduced.

Stine said Fletcher's plan to retool state government, including eliminating as many as five cabinet positions, will save money.

"State government is an enormous, fat bureaucracy that really does need to be trimmed down," she said.

Even though money is tight, Northern Kentucky lawmakers are united in wanting to build an arena at Northern Kentucky University.

"It's going to be hard to fund any projects this year, and we know that," Westwood said. "But maybe we can get some money to start the preliminary (design and planning) work for the arena."

Other Northern Kentucky priorities, according to Stine and Westwood, include:

• Ensuring NKU gets its fair share of funding compared to the state's other regional universities.

• Working with state and federal officials to fund the replacement of the Brent Spence Bridge

• Retooling the state's funding formula for secondary and primary education so Northern Kentucky districts get more.

Today, however, Frankfort will focus on welcoming the new governor into office. Fletcher, with his wife, Glenna at his side, was to be officially sworn into office just after midnight. The former congressman and physician from Lexington will have his public swearing in at 2 p.m. today at the State Capitol.

Democrats did a little party-pooping Monday by questioning why Fletcher has yet to name a Northern Kentuckian to any cabinet or other high-level position

"I thought we were going to get our day," said a sarcastic Kenton County Democratic Chairman Nathan Smith of Fort Mitchell.

Stine said that, with nearly 1,000 appointments to make, Fletcher will make sure Northern Kentucky is represented.

If You Go

Frankfort is about a one hour, 45-minute drive from Northern Kentucky. Take Interstate 75 south to Interstate 64 east to Exit 58, Frankfort/Versailles. Turn right on Ky. 421 and go about three miles to Main Street (Ky. 60). Turn left. Shuttle buses will operate from the Human Resources Building at Main and Martin Luther King Drive across from Kentucky State University. Parking is limited around the Capitol and a big crowd is expected, so organizers are suggesting using the free shuttle bus service, which will be available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Inaugural Parade begins at 10 a.m. It will run from downtown Frankfort across The Kentucky River up Capitol Avenue to the front of the State Capitol, where Ernie Fletcher will be sworn into office at 2 p.m.

Other events include an inaugural reception at 4 p.m. at the Kentucky History Center in downtown Frankfort, the Grand March through the Capitol Rotunda at 8 p.m. and the three inaugural balls, which begin at 8:30 at Republican Party Headquarters, Third Street and Capitol Avenue; the Farnham Dudgeon Civic Center at the Frankfort Capital Plaza complex; and on the grounds of the Governor's Mansion. All events are free and open to the public.


E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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