By TOPHER PAYTON
Shots were fired back and forth between the two leading candidates running to be Kentucky’s next governor at the debate held on Eastern’s campus.
Roughly 600 people filled the EKU Center for the Arts to listen to Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Matt Bevin in their second-to-last chance to speak before Kentucky voters.
Independent candidate Drew Curtis was excluded from the debate through a rule set by the League of Women Voters, which sponsored the debate in part with CBS affiliates WLKY-Louisville and WKYT-Lexington. In order to participate in the debate, eligible candidates must have garnered at least 10 percent support in recent polls, and Curtis had not met that goal, according to the League of Women Voters.
The candidates touched on several issues facing Kentucky college students from affordability of college to campus safety.
Both candidates were asked how to make college students feel safe in light of the recent shootings that have occurred on campuses across the country.
Conway said he would like to see more training for police officers so they can better protect the students and for colleges to have rigorous plans in place so they know exactly what to do in the event of an emergency.
“About 16 or 17 years ago, I worked with Terry Moberly to create the Center for School Safety right here at Eastern Kentucky University,” Conway said. “So those contingency plans can be developed so that we can work with teachers and administrators to make certain we know what the best practices are. And, God forbid anything like that ever happen, we will be ready with a particular plan.”
Bevin took a slightly different approach, saying that universities are opening their doors to attacks of this nature because the attacker knows there is no struggle while police are scrambling to get there. That’s why, he said, he supports allowing students and teachers to have conceal-carry permits on Kentucky campuses to defend themselves and potentially deter attacks from happening in the first place.
“[Attackers] go exactly where they know there is no resistance, for at least some period of minutes, and then people like these [police officers] have to rush to a scene where they’re not and where there’s nobody on site whom in any position to provide any cover before they get there,” Bevin said in a meet and greet with Eastern students following the debate. “We are creating opportunity for people that they are seizing because evil exists in the world and we will never legislate it away.”
The two candidates also debated how to make college more affordable.
Bevin said he favors what he calls “outcomes-based funding,” which draws a distinction in the types of degrees awarded to students. Those universities that make an effort to graduate students with STEM degrees–which includes science, math, engineering and technology–will receive more funding from the state than those universities that produce liberal arts degrees.
“We as a state spend $1 billion a year of our taxpayer money on post-secondary education, but we don’t discriminate if you want to study French literature or whether you want to study electrical engineering,” Bevin said. “We need to start doing so with the taxpayer’s money. I’m a strong supporter of outcomes-based funding. And as we restore these dollars to our institutions of higher learning that we will do so in a way that incentivizes them to graduate in a timely manner–students with the degrees necessary to be productive in the workforce.”
Conway, in contrast, said the government, which is expecting a $219 million surplus in the next budget, should earmark those surplus dollars for the following two priorities: funding the state pension shortfalls and funding early-childhood education. Any leftover money, he said, could go toward restoring some of the cuts to higher education.
Conway added that part of the responsibility fall to Kentucky’s universities and high schools to help with this issue.
“The higher education institutions are going to have to get more efficient,” Conway said. “We’re going to have to do a better job of counseling 11th and 12th graders about loans they are about to take out and about that debt that can follow them around for the rest of their lives.”
Another issue that came up was the use of medical marijuana.
Bevin said he supported the use of marijuana so long as it came through a doctor’s prescription, noting that the drug offers benefits to victims of epilepsy, cancer and other diseases.
Bevin added that if the drug is regulated like other prescription drugs, it wouldn’t lead to more recreational use.
“We are on the campus of a university,” Bevin said. “I am not going to ask for the young people in the audience to raise their hands … is it not already easy for you to find this on the streets? Come on. Who are we kidding? The only people that can’t get it are the people who abide by the law.”
Conway said he did not support prescription-based medical marijuana, adding that until Kentucky’s medical community advocated for medical marijuana, he would not be inclined to legalize it.
Conway added that marijuana is a common gateway drug, adding that it could prove a slippery slope to more addictive and dangerous drugs. He said there’s evidence that shows that many drug abusers start out using marijuana, and he doesn’t want to encourage that behavior.
“If we passed a law for medical marijuana, it would be easier to get on our streets,” Conway said. “I understand what hurts kids, and I don’t want to do anything that would have the potential to hurt our children.”
Bevin countered, however, saying that those who need medical marijuana are not the ones who run the risk of abusing harder drugs.
“A kid with epilepsy, a kid with terminal brain cancer, these are not kids that I’m worried about starting off with a life of drug addiction,” Bevin said. “These are kids who need help. And I would absolutely sign such legislation, but I would never, ever in this state sign legislation encouraging the use of recreational marijuana.”
After the debate, a handful of students who were in attendance said they thought Bevin won the debate and was the better speaker, but that Conway’s stances on the issues better resonated with them.
Caitlyn Brock, 20, who is the chair of the College Republicans organization, said both candidates got their points across well, but Bevin was the clear winner.
“I think that he put forth the most solutions and gave solutions other than just ‘maybe’ answers,” Brock said.
Dakota Barr, 20, a Democrat supporter, said Sunday’s debate was more of a yelling game, and neither of them really sold it for him.
Barr agreed that Bevin won the debate largely by the strength of his personality, but that Conway offered more substance on the issues.
“I don’t think Jack Conway has the touch with people that Matt Bevin does,” Barr said. “Bevin can really connect with people. He’s really personable. But if you really dig deep and actually look at what they were saying, Jack Conway, hands-down, is the winner.”
Both Brock and Barr agreed that having the debate on Eastern’s campus was a really good way to get students involved in the election process.
“I love that we can be nonpartisan and be friendly with the other side, and especially for Bevin to answer everyone’s questions in a fair and friendly way,” Barr said of the meet and greet following the debate.
Brock said she hopes this inspires students to look more heavily into the issues and to get out there and vote.
The gubernatorial election is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 3.