Kentucky’s New Governor Andy Beshear Prioritizes Funding Public Schools, Strengthening State Pensions, and Protecting Medicaid Eligibility

On Tuesday night, Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was elected governor of Kentucky.  By a slim 5,100 vote margin, which may be challenged in Kentucky’s version of a recount, Beshear defeated the state’s current governor, Republican, Matt Bevin.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made this race a priority and spent considerable time in Kentucky rallying Bevin’s supporters in the final weeks of the campaign.  And Politico reports that the President’s 2020 campaign operation invested in an extensive get-out-the-vote effort across the state to ensure a Bevin victory. But it didn’t work.

Governor Elect Andy Beshear chose a public school principal, Jacqueline Coleman, as his running mate. He won on a platform for the common good, which features raising funding for public schools and school teachers, stabilizing the state pension fund, and eliminating restrictions on Medicaid eligibility.

Kentucky’s teachers marched on the state capitol in Frankfort in April 2018, as part of the beginning of the RedforEd wave, which has brought the nation’s attention to what have become outrageously large classes and shortages of counselors, school psychologists, social workers, nurses, and librarians as states failed to recover from the 2008 recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities names Kentucky as one of a dozen states where, by 2019, state school formula funding remains 13 percent below where it was in 2008 when adjusted for inflation.

In early October, Andy Beshear released an education plan to increase the state’s funding for schools. The Louisville Courier Journal reported: “A main feature of the Democrats’ plan is supporting an ‘education first budget’ that increases the state’s portion of SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding and increases overall per-pupil funding.  While per-pupil funding has increased under Bevin, Beshear said the total remains 13% lower than before the 2008 recession…. The Beshear campaign’s plan also calls for reducing class sizes, increasing the number of school nurses, adding mental health services, helping local governments with school infrastructure and supplies, and expanding early childhood education. It repeats his pledge from a month earlier to raise all teachers’ salaries by $2,000 in order to address a shortage of educators… Beshear also highlighted past statements by Bevin that harshly criticized teachers protesting pension legislation supported by the governor, saying they’ve been ‘bullied’ and ‘called names.'”

On Monday of this week, Bloomberg reported on the divisive fight over the state pension fund: “Last year, thousands of Kentucky teachers staged a walkout and rallied against proposed cuts to their retirement benefits by Republican Governor Matt Bevin…. The tight (gubernatorial) race between Bevin and… Andy Beshear could have big implications in a state with one of the worst-funded public employee retirement systems in the U.S.  Kentucky’s efforts to rein in a $45 billion pension burden have been complicated by constitutional limits on cuts to benefits and lawmakers’ resistance to raising taxes…. State officials in Kentucky underfunded the pension system for years….”

Andy Beshear, then Kentucky’s attorney general, became a hero for the state’s public school teachers when, in 2018, Governor Bevin rushed through the legislature a controversial new pension plan that would have penalized teachers.  The Lexington Herald Leader reported: “The law places teachers hired after Jan. 1, 2019, in a hybrid cash-balance plan, which is similar to a 401(k), rather than a traditional pension, and requires those teachers to work longer before becoming eligible for retirement…  State employees hired between 2003 and 2008 also are required to pay 1 percent more for health care.”  Then Attorney General Andy Beshear joined with teachers and police unions to file a legal challenge to Bevin’s new law. And in June of 2018, a Franklin County judge declared the law unconstitutional based on the skirting of required legislative procedure during its passage. The night before this week’s election, the PBS NewsHour covered the Kentucky governor’s race and featured public school teachers canvassing door-to-door on behalf of Andy Beshear’s election.

Besides underfunding public education and seeking to reduce pension benefits—a move that would have made it harder for Kentucky to attract public school teachers, Governor Bevin made Kentucky the first state imposing work requirements on Medicaid. The Washington Post‘s James Hohmann reports: “Because of personal and intensive lobbying by Bevin, Kentucky became the first state in the country last year to receive federal permission to require that poor residents either hold a job, participate in a job training program or volunteer in their community to retain their health insurance coverage. Bevin’s own administration forecasts that the work requirements, if they go into effect, could result in as many as 95,000 of the 400,000 Kentuckians currently on Medicaid being dropped from the rolls.”

Bevin’s tough guy stance has ignored the lack of jobs in some places and people’s inability to maintain enough hours in unstable part time jobs. Neither has Governor Bevin acknowledged the impact on children when their parents lose Medicaid.  Hohmann quotes Bevin’s bizarre critique of Andy Beshear’s support for opposing work requirements in the Medicaid program: “I didn’t have it (insurance) until I was in my 20s when I was a military officer… I’m the only one who’s ever lost coverage in recent years for preexisting conditions. Me and my entire family had no health-care coverage for a year-and-a-half because of preexisting conditions.”  About Andy Beshear, Bevin continues: “He says, ‘I’m the hero for people with no health-care coverage.’  He’s never been there. I have…. So he’s a phony. He’s an absolute fraud.'”

Bevin’s plan to add work requirements to Medicaid was challenged in court and blocked by a federal judge.  Hohmann reports Bevin predicted he would lose on Medicaid work requirements in a court of appeals, but Hohmann adds “If he gets reelected, he’ll appeal to the Supreme Court.”

Bevin was not, however, reelected on Tuesday. Instead, Governor Andy Beshear will have an opportunity to try to restore to Kentucky some of what has been lost as conditions have deteriorated in the public schools, as pension battles have driven potential teachers away from the state, and as Governor Matt Bevin has attempted to justify the denial of health insurance to Kentucky’s poorest families. Last year, the Lexington Herald Leader reported that, in April of 2018, an all-Republican, Kentucky Legislature—more attentive to the state’s needs than Governor Bevin himself—overrode Governor Bevin’s veto of a state budget intended to raise “several hundred million dollars in new revenue” and to support “pension relief to local governments.”  We must wish Governor Andy Beshear well as he tries to build continued legislative support for an agenda to reconstruct the public good in Kentucky.