FRANKFORT – In a group meeting Thursday with reporters from some of the state’s smaller media outlets, Gov. Matt Bevin weighed in on a new school safety bill, changes to the state’s high school graduation requirements and reforms to the state’s cash-strapped pension system.
The Republican, who is up for re-election this year, also reiterated his plans to file for candidacy this month. The deadline is Jan. 29.
“That is still absolutely my intention,” Bevin said during the invitation-only event for community news outlets that did not include representatives of the state’s larger news organizations.
Another Republican – Rep. Robert Goforth of Laurel County – has already filed to seek the GOP nomination.
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, Attorney General Andy Beshear and former Auditor Adam Edelen have announced plans to run for governor.
Asked by the Daily News if he will keep Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton of Bowling Green as his running mate in the upcoming election, Bevin said, “we’ll see,” adding that those discussions are still taking place.
“It’s not a given that I will, and it’s not a given that I won’t,” he said, adding the decision hinges on both their plans for the next four years. “She is a very dear friend for whom I have tremendous respect. She’s been a fantastic lieutenant governor.”
Meanwhile, Bevin defended his decision to call a special session of the state’s Republican-controlled legislature last month, despite that session ending with no new pension law.
Kentucky’s pension system is reportedly short at least $38 billion it needs to pay state workers’ retirement benefits over the next three decades. Bevin called the special session just four days after the state Supreme Court struck down Senate Bill 151 – a law passed during the 2018 regular session that would have moved new teachers into a hybrid pension plan and restricted how teachers used sick days to enhance their retirement benefits – on purely procedural grounds.
Bevin called lawmakers’ inability to pass a new law during special session an “absolute failure” and called legislators irresponsible for not doing so.
“We had a chance to do the very same thing we had already done,” he said.
At the time, Bevin claimed the court’s ruling would negatively affect the state’s credit rating. On Thursday, he pushed back on a report from the Lexington Herald-Leader that questioned his claim by citing findings from Fitch, a credit rating agency based in New York.
The report said the agency bases its assessment of Kentucky’s credit rating on its ability to maintain full funding for pensions and wean itself off one-time funding for programs, not on changes to pension systems.
When the Daily News asked Bevin about the report and read a portion of it to him, he said he had not seen or read it but described it as “nonsensical”
“That’s just the most nonsensical thing. Read any credit rating agency report that has come out in the last 10 years about Kentucky and I would defy you to find anybody that doesn’t mention our pension crisis,” he said.
Bevin reiterated a previous claim that Kentucky has the worst-funded pension system in the country.
“We’re at the bottom,” he said. “ ... There’s not one real credit rating agency that doesn’t see this an epic crisis of financial impact on this state.”
Bevin – who commonly criticizes the Herald-Leader and the Courier Journal in Louisville, the state’s largest newspapers – argued that the Herald-Leader, in his view, did not characterize the pension crisis accurately.
“The Herald-Leader, you talk about irresponsible journalism,” he said. “To try to find a way to convince people that this is not a crisis is absolutely irresponsible and shameful because it is a huge problem and we do not have the ability to print money.”
Also during the meeting, Bevin weighed in on state legislation that would prioritize school safety by setting a state goal to add more school resource officers and mental health professionals to Kentucky’s schools, among many other provisions.
Although Bevin said he hadn’t fully read Senate Bill 1, which was introduced Wednesday, he called it a “fantastic effort.”
“I think it has a lot of good in it,” he said of the bill.
Asked to respond to Kentucky’s new high school graduation requirements, which will be phased in during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, Bevin said Kentucky needs to do better for its students.
Despite a high school graduation rate around 90 percent, Bevin said: “What we also know, sadly, is that fully 35 percent of kids that come out of our high schools with a diploma – not a GED, a diploma – 35 percent of them have no ability to start in college at any level or to take a job other than an entirely unskilled job.”
Bevin suggested the requirements should have gone further, and he accused the Kentucky Education Association of exerting pressure to soften the requirements. “We should all feel insulted that we don’t believe enough in our children to prepare them for the world they’re going to be going into,” Bevin said.
– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @BGDN_edbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.