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February 5, 2008

Ideas man: To Lee Todd, state’s ills are mere problems waiting to be solved

University of Kentucky President Lee Todd wears two hats, that of a fiscal realist, and of a proud alum who wants to see his alma mater succeed.Now that Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly must wrestle a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall that so far includes big cuts to universities’ budgets, Todd’s wearing another cap, too: an advisor’s. Two weeks ago, Todd announced he was collecting a series of white papers he plans to submit to Beshear as a way of saying, “Here’s how we do things.” Todd thinks it’s his place to do so, because when he took over in 2001, Big Blue faced dire financial straits. “The first two years President Todd was in office, the university had $70 million in recurring budget cuts,” spokesman Jay Blanton said. These marked reductions in state funding forced Todd’s administration to cut or trim services to students and faculty that the university could either not afford, or that it could afford to lose.Among those key changes was the way UK provides healthcare coverage to its employees. Its human resources department entered into an agreement with the school’s College of Pharmacy, whereby two pharmacy professors manage employee prescriptions, counsel the ones who have diabetes and other cardiovascular diseases and work to move more employees to use generic prescription drugs, Blanton said.Another cut reduced the expenses UK incurs for retiree health benefits. Future retirees hired after Jan. 1, 2006 won’t have their healthcare subsidized by UK, Blanton said, they’ll have to pay for it themselves. This change saved UK $17 million in the last year.Smaller measures, like having its athletics department cover the cost of cleaning Memorial Auditorium, saved cash, too. Todd’s extending his hand in the research department because he thinks it’s the responsibility of a land-grant institution, but his university is facing déjà vu: Beshear’s budget proposal last week included a 12 percent cut in funding for higher education in the first year, a decision that could mean higher tuition rates. “The governor’s budget issues, by extension, can impact our budget,” Blanton said. UK’s white papers — corporate slang for research documents used for sales and marketing, public policy or to educate consumers — will include research done in the Commonwealth Collaboratives. These are 23 projects aimed at improving state schools, healthcare, business, climate and lifestyles, according to UK’s website.In one such collaborative, university researchers are exploring the use of immunology to treat lung cancer, while another, Project Jumpstart, seeks to elevate test scores at two schools, Booker T. Washington and The Academy at Lexington in Fayette County, and 60 schools nationwide.UK’s “Centering Smiles” initiative, funded by a million-dollar grant from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has helped UK lower the number of pre-term low-birth-weight babies in Hopkins County from 18 percent to 5 percent over a nine-month period. The reduction saved the state almost $2 million in healthcare expenses, and between 600 and 800 women in the county now participate in the program, Blanton said.UK law professor Robert G. Lawson’s white papers heavily criticize Kentucky’s correctional system.Lawson wrote most of the revisions to the state penal code that the legislature passed in 1974. Since then, he laments Kentucky’s toughening of penalties for misdemeanors and felonies.“We’ve toughened our laws to the point that we’re locking up huge numbers of people,” he said. His research estimates the state’s inmate population at 22,000, a 600-700 percent increase from 1975. “There hasn’t been one harsher penalty that the General Assembly encountered that they didn’t love,” he said. County jails bear the brunt of this swollen population of inmates with felony convictions. “Jails aren’t designed for long-term incarceration,” he said. “They’re designed for 30 days, and we’re putting people in there for 10 years.”Lawson’s findings come from visits to nine jails around the state and three prisons: Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex in West Liberty, Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, and Blackburn Correctional Complex in Lexington.In a white paper titled “Turning Jails Into Prisons,” Lawson explained that the motive is for keeping felons in jails is cost. “The counties want the inmates because it supplies them with some money, and the state wants to do it because it costs them less to keep them there than it does to keep them in prison,” he said.But now the issue is at its apex, thanks to a 10 percent increase in the state’s inmate population in the last year, much of it in jails. “The only way the jails can make that pay for itself is by overcrowding,” Lawson said.Politics has also played a role. Since 1974, Kentucky voters have adopted a tough on crime attitude that Lawson said makes state politicians afraid to relax criminal statutes in any way.“There is an inadequate understanding of this problem by the public,” he said. “Basically, I am trying to educate people about the nature of this problem. Not even well-informed judges and lawyers have an appreciation of it.” Contact the writer at mherron@leoweekly.com