Nearly 30 years before he would become president, a young Abraham Lincoln began his political career by running for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. Although he was largely self-taught, his passion for public education was already evident. In a campaign letter to those he hoped to serve, he called it “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

His words are a welcome contrast to the remarks Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton gave last week to The Eastern Progress newspaper. “Those of us who go to work must give part of their earnings to put you through college, and I disagree with that,” she said, as if educating the next generation of citizens was a burden rather than an opportunity.

Her words also directly contradict state law, which says that “the general welfare and material well-being of citizens of the Commonwealth depend in large measure upon the development of a well-educated and highly trained workforce.”

To put that in another way, whatever savings she thinks we might see from not funding higher education would pale against the losses caused by businesses looking elsewhere for that well-educated and highly trained workforce.

Those who want to cut higher education seem unaware of what has already occurred as the lingering result of the 2008 worldwide recession. In the last eight years, Kentucky’s public colleges and universities have seen their revenues from the state drop by about a third when adjusting for inflation. The state covered about 70 percent of these institutions’ budgets when most of today’s college students were in elementary school; now, that figure is below 40 percent, resulting in steep increases in tuition.

That is the climate in which Governor Bevin seeks to cut higher education even more, and this is also the climate that Lieutenant Governor Hampton apparently thinks is still too generous for our students. While the rest of the country is looking for ways to invest even more in these economic engines, they are anxious to see us move in the other direction at lightning speed.

All the House is trying to do is keep postsecondary funding at the same level for the next two years. Nothing more. Holding the line should not be too much to ask, especially as state revenues are expected to grow by nearly $900 million during that timeframe.

Those who say these cuts are needed to shore up our ailing public retirement systems are presenting a false choice. The House budget showed the systems can get every dollar they say they need without a dime of that coming from education.

Perhaps the biggest irony regarding the lieutenant governor’s comments is that her own college education was paid in large part through the G.I. Bill and state support of the school she attended. She and her generation benefited from this collective approach, not in spite of it, and to imply that today’s college students somehow deserve less is wrong and short-sighted.

The upcoming two-year budget has the potential to be the most important in a generation. It will either be the start of a decline that will make tomorrow’s workers less qualified for the jobs of tomorrow, or it will be the start of a renewed focus on higher education, as the House proposes through its “Work Ready” scholarship program to help many college students acquire a two-year degree tuition-free.

Lt. Governor Hampton downplays college majors like history, but if she would just study what Kentucky has done over the past two decades, she would see that our economic successes have largely tracked our willingness to put more focus on education and workforce training. We wouldn’t have led the nation the last two years in the per capita number of major job announcements without this trend.

That’s the story I wish she had told EKU’s college students and their newspaper. That’s also the story I wish she and the governor would embrace going forward. They need to learn that when it comes to our students’ education, less really is not more.

Rita Smart

State Representative

House District 81 (Madison County)