Conway pledges push to return more severance tax money to coal counties; Bevin open to idea

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Dangling an enticing promise to local officials from Kentucky's coalfields, Democrat Jack Conway said Wednesday his first budget proposal if he's elected governor would include a plan to return a larger share of severance tax money to struggling coal counties.

"Come see me," Conway told the gathering of city and county leaders meeting in Louisville. "We're going to put the right pressure on the legislature and we're going to get some more of that coal severance tax money back" to the counties.

Matt Bevin, his Republican opponent, told reporters he would be open to considering a change to return more severance tax revenue to coal counties. He acknowledged the policy change would be popular with the audience of city and county officials, but he made no commitment.

"There's not a person in this state that has been promised anything by me," Bevin said in his speech. "There is no constituency that I'm beholden to at all. I will come with a blank sheet of paper. I will sit down at the table with folks like yourselves and folks who, frankly, don't even agree with you on things."

Severance tax money is split between the state and coal counties, but the revenue has dropped sharply amid the downturn in coal production in the state's Appalachian region. Conway said the distribution formula shortchanges struggling coal county governments.

Bevin and Conway are running in the Nov. 3 election to succeed Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who can't serve again because of term limits. Conway is completing his second term as Kentucky's attorney general. Bevin is a Louisville businessman.

The two rivals took turns condemning federal environmental regulations blamed for contributing to the slumping Appalachian coal sector.

Bevin sounded a states-rights message in fighting the EPA, citing the Constitution's 10th Amendment in a stance popular with the tea party.

"I'm telling you right now the 10th Amendment affords us the extraordinary amount of sovereignty and autonomy as a state," he said. "That the powers not specifically given to the federal government are the responsibilities of the states and of the people.

"And I'm a governor, if you elect me, who will absolutely take that to heart and will govern accordingly."

Conway noted that as attorney general he joined lawsuits to block stricter federal environmental regulations.

"I will always stand up to the EPA when it's the right thing to do for Kentucky," Conway said.

The coal sector's struggles have become a hot political issue in Kentucky. Following the same playbook from past elections, Republicans are trying to link Conway to President Barack Obama, who is unpopular in Kentucky.

The two candidates took opposing stances on the newest expanded gambling proposal floated by a top legislator.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo said this week he plans to file a proposed constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling in the state. The proposal would go on the ballot for voters to decide if it clears the Democratic-led House and GOP-run Senate. Stumbo said his proposal would earmark gambling revenues to bolster education funding, shore up the state's public pension systems and help the horse-racing industry.

Conway said if elected he would lead efforts to build a consensus to put a gambling measure on the ballot

"I'd be very aggressive about trying to get together on the front end with all the people that have a say in this issue and trying to see if there's something that can be done," he said.

Bevin downplayed the proposal, saying there are more pressing needs. He noted that Beshear, an expanded gambling advocate, was unable to get a casino gambling measure through the legislature during his two terms.

"I don't think there's the political will to see this happen," Bevin said.

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