Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is going after teachers again, this time subpoenaing records of those who called in sick to protest changes in their pensions. It’s much different from the way another Republican governor many years ago dealt with teachers and what it cost him.
My Aunt Celeste Staples was a school teacher and a New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat. Twice widowed and mother to three sons, she sold World Book Encyclopedia to supplement her paltry teacher’s salary. She was serious about education, even failing one of her sons who had the misfortune of being assigned to his mother’s class. I doubt she had ever voted Republican.
This was in spite of the fact that she lived next door to and was friends with Republican Louie B. Nunn, a former Barren County Judge and future governor. Nunn ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1963, losing to Democrat Ned Breathitt. Aunt Celeste likely voted for Breathitt.
But Nunn came back in 1967 and with the help of a weak Democratic opponent and a disgruntled Happy Chandler, he won. This was the era when governors dominated the legislature, and despite Democratic control of both the state House and Senate, Nunn persuaded lawmakers to increase the motor vehicle tax and raise the sales tax from 3 cents to 5 cents.
Nunn claimed Breathitt had “left the cupboard bare,” and years later after the two became friends, Breathitt conceded some truth to the claim.
Nunn told lawmakers “the cold hard facts (of the budget situation) are distressing . . .” Nevertheless, said Nunn, “There is no economy in retreat.”
The Republican governor who had promised not to raise taxes called his proposed budget a “human document.”
“In its pages are the faces of children who depend upon it for their education; the faces of young men and women who depend upon this budget for their university and college education; the faces of our ill and aged . . . the faces of our mentally ill . . . who find in this budget the gift of hope.”
“They look to us, these unfortunates, and for my part, I cannot look away,” Nunn said. He had “drunk from the bitter cup and now I pass it to you.”
They gave him his tax increases. So what did Nunn do with the extra revenues? He gave teachers long, long overdue pay raises, including my Aunt Celeste; he transformed the state’s mental health system, dragging it out of the darkness and into the 20th century. He even built roads in traditionally Republican districts and regions. Not many Republicans complained about that.
It is inconceivable today’s Republican and Democratic leaders in Frankfort would risk their political capital in the same way to lend aid to “these unfortunates.” For their part, most lawmakers in Frankfort can and coldly do look away. They refuse to drink from the bitter cup in order to properly fund pensions, education and vital health and social services.
Republicans now control Frankfort with Bevin in the governor’s chair and both chambers firmly in control of the GOP. And once again, our cupboard is bare. But I see no one of Nunn’s stature, courage or compassion to lead state government to help our unfortunates.
Unlike Nunn, they don’t understand there is no economy in retreat. They continue to cut funding for education and the pension crisis is strangling health departments and mental health agencies. The governor is more interested in subpoenaing teachers and cutting back Medicaid. But he and his Republican colleagues are more than happy to lend a hand up the ladder to companies to locate here.
Nunn’s courage cost him politically. He never escaped the “Nunn’s Nickel” label and never won another election, losing a race for the Senate and in 1979 another for governor.
But I’m guessing Aunt Celeste voted for him in both of those elections.
Ronnie Ellis is the former statehouse reporter for CNHI Kentucky and writes a weekly column. Follow him on Twitter @cnhifrankfort.