Fletcher, Beshear spar with election closing in

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)- Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Democratic challenger Steve Beshear squabbled Sunday night over domestic partner benefits for public university employees and the state’s record in creating lasting jobs and providing more help for social workers facing huge caseloads.

In their latest faceoff, Beshear took more pokes at a merit hiring scandal that plagued much of the Republican governor’s term. And the two even questioned each other’s hunting experience.

The two were constantly on the attack during the hourlong debate, coming a little more than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election. The debate was broadcast live on WHAS-TV in Louisville and WTVQ-TV in Lexington

The disagreements flared early when the candidates were asked about domestic partner health benefits.

Fletcher said state money should not fund health insurance costs for gay couples at universities. Beshear said the matter should be left up to the schools because they compete with other universities across the globe.

“He (Beshear) wants folks out there – taxpayers – many of which can barely afford their own health insurance to pay for the health insurance of gay couples at our universities,” Fletcher said. “I think there’s a better way of making health care affordable and available. That’s making sure it’s available for everyone, not putting on your back the fact that Steve wants to have you pay for health insurance for gay couples.”

Beshear countered that Fletcher had flip-flopped because of politics.

“That’s a local university issue and we both said that up until this summer,” Beshear said. “Universities ought to be able to make the decision about how to fashion their health benefits package because they’re competing to bring faculty and staff from all over the world.”

Both the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky had plans to provide health insurance coverage for their employees’ domestic partners.

The schools have revised their plans after an attorney general’s opinion in June found the benefits were in violation of the state constitution by offering health insurance only to same-sex and opposite-sex partners of employees. The opinion did not carry the force of law.

Beshear also criticized the state’s economic development strategy, saying it focuses too much on luring out-of-state companies with tax incentives. Too many times, he said, companies stay briefly, pocket the incentives and then move their operations to low-wage countries.

“It’s time we stop that kind of thing,” Beshear said.

Beshear said he would concentrate on nurturing homegrown companies.

Fletcher countered that Kentucky companies have received more incentives than out-of-state companies. He said Beshear was wrong in claiming that companies pocket incentives and then leave.

“Most of our incentives have worked very well,” he said.

The governor added that the occasional company that does leave won’t automatically receive the incentives because they have to earn them.

The candidates also wrangled over efforts to better protect social workers and ease their caseloads.

At Fletcher’s urging, state lawmakers passed legislation this year that included several million dollars to hire additional social workers and improve their safety. The legislation stemmed from the slaying of Boni Frederick, a western Kentucky social services aide. Frederick died a year ago after being stabbed and beaten when she took a 10-month-old boy for a visit at his mother’s house.

Beshear said that it took Fletcher’s administration too long to deal with the issue.

Fletcher said he proposed $25 million to hire extra social workers, bolster security at their offices and create a safer environment for visits between birth parents and abused or neglected children. Fletcher said he ran into resistance from some Democratic House leaders before a final version passed that included less money than the governor requested.

Beshear took more shots at Fletcher for an investigation that led to the governor’s indictment on charges that he violated state hiring laws in an alleged scheme to reward political supporters with state jobs.

The indictment later was dropped in a settlement with prosecutors. Fletcher and at least 14 of his aides and associates were indicted. Fletcher issued pardons for everyone except himself. Fletcher has criticized the probe as a political witch hunt.

During the debate, Fletcher acknowledged mistakes were made but said they weren’t criminal.

“All the false allegations were dropped,” he said.

Beshear criticized Fletcher for invoking his 5th Amendment right when the governor appeared before the special grand jury that investigated the case.

“Why don’t you step up as a public official should and tell the truth and let everybody know what happened?” Beshear asked.

Meanwhile, Fletcher poked fun at Beshear for a television ad that portrays him hunting. Fletcher said Beshear had a bird dog with him, then suggested Beshear wasn’t wearing proper attire for bird hunting.

“I’m not sure who’s teaching you to hunt, but it looked like it was a new endeavor that you really hadn’t been very used to,” Fletcher said.

Beshear shot back, “I bet I’ve hunted a lot more than this guy has,” referring to Fletcher.

Fletcher bragged about bagging his first turkey this year.

After months of a hard-hitting campaign, the candidates were asked to say something nice about the other.

Fletcher praised Beshear’s work ethic. Beshear complimented Fletcher for getting more money for the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, in preparation for the 2010 World Equestrian Games.