It’s less than 50 days before the Kentucky General Election and incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and his Democratic opponent Attorney General Andy Beshear are ramping up campaign efforts.
Public education and health care have been among the biggest issues the two have been battling over, not just in the gubernatorial race, but since their election to office.
Since being sworn in three years ago, Beshear has filed three lawsuits against Bevin over issues related to public school teachers.
The Kentucky Supreme Court sided with Beshear in two of the suits relating to state university system budget cuts and changes to teacher pensions.
Most recently, Beshear sued Bevin over the Kentucky Labor Cabinet’s decision to subpoena school districts for the names of teachers who might have participated in the “sickout” protests earlier this year that forced 10 school districts to shut down for one or more days.
That lawsuit became moot when the Kentucky Department of Education, which was not a party to the lawsuit, adhered to the subpoena and provided the requested records.
On Aug. 16, the Labor Cabinet published its final report which found that 1,074 teachers partook in “illegal work stoppages” over the two-week period but that the Cabinet would not pursue civil penalties of up to $1,000 per person, per day.
That same day, Beshear announced his “Stop the Bullying, Raise the Pay” plan to give teachers a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise.
State Rep. Patti Minter, D-Bowling Green, a Western Kentucky University history professor, said she would support the measure if it is presented at the upcoming budget session because teachers are “woefully” underpaid.
“In the private market, when you have a shortage of something, you pay people more in order to get them. We have a teacher shortage in Kentucky right now and a lot of that is because the governor has been insulting teachers constantly, and they go elsewhere. They want to have a defined benefit pension, they want to have the promise of a dignified retirement,” Minter said.
It might sound extravagant to some people, says Warren County Democratic Chair Charlene Rabold, but she believes it would help attract higher quality educators and new businesses.
“In the past, education has had a larger percentage of the budget than it does today, so we may have to realign our priorities and make sure that (education) continues to get more than their fair share than they’re getting today.”
But the plan may not be feasible, according to David Graham, chairman of the Warren County Republican Party and former public school band director.
“That sounds great, my next question would be what are you going to cut to pay for it?” Graham said. “There’s not much ‘fat’ in the budget to pay for it.”
The funding question was echoed by Scott Lasley, head of the WKU Political Science department and former chairman of the Warren County Republican Party.
“The reality is there has not been a lot of interest in raising taxes at the state level, whether its Republicans or Democrats, over the last decade and a half. So if you do decide to allocate money, it’s got to come from somewhere else. So I think the feasibility will largely depend on public reaction,” Lasley said. “If Andy Beshear were to win, and that’s an issue that seems to be popular, it could put some pressure on the legislature to act.”
Lasley added that the policy is part of a “broader, orchestrated effort” to secure teacher votes and that it will be interesting to see which candidate comes out on top at polls in small, rural, socially conservative areas where education is a top economic driver.
“(These voters) are going to be faced with sort of a dichotomy there on election day where: do these larger forces, social conservatism and some of those type things seize the day, or (is) some of the damage that has occurred over the last four years, has that eroded the relationship enough where Gov. Bevin will lose some of those places that you wouldn’t expect him to.”
A memo from Beshear’s campaign Tuesday showed him leading Bevin by 9 points in each of the three internal polls conducted within the last two months, two from Garin-Hart-Yang and one from Clarity Campaign.
But state Rep. Steve Sheldon, R-Bowling Green, says he’s not worried about the polls because Bevin has brought over 50,000 jobs and more than $20 billion in investments to the commonwealth, and has kept the ailing Kentucky Retirement Systems afloat.
In July, Bevin called a special session where he signed House Bill 1 into law which delays higher pension rates for regional universities and certain quasi-governmental agencies for one year. After that period, they will have to decide whether to stay in KRS, switch to an alternative plan or a hybrid between the two.
“I think there’s a lot of supporters out there for Bevin that are teachers, that are state employees, and they look at it for what it is and that he’s trying to save the pension,” Sheldon said. “Nobody else has really tried to tackle this because they knew it was a political hot spot that could get them beat.”
Some Democrats in the General Assembly argued HB1 takes away pension benefits originally promised by KRS, which Beshear says he would ensure are protected.
When it comes to health care, Beshear says he wants to expand affordable health care access and has touted the importance of the 2013 expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program implemented by his father, then-Gov. Steve Beshear.
But Bevin says the state can’t pay for its 10 percent portion of the expansion cost, so he has been working to roll it back through his Medicaid waiver that would require able-bodied recipients up to the age of 64 to work or volunteer 80 hours a month.
“The Medicaid expansion was very problematic from the start because we knew that money was temporary,” Graham said. “It’s of course been a benefit to those (recipients) but everyone knew that federal money was going to stop and the responsibility was going to be born to the state. So it kinda like … the teacher salaries, (it) sounded great, (but) how do we pay for it?”
The waiver was blocked in June by a federal judge in Washington and an appeals court will hear the case Oct. 11. Bevin says if he doesn’t win in court, he will end expanded Medicaid altogether.
Bevin also joined 15 other states when he signed a court brief in June asking a federal appeals court to uphold a Trump administration rule that would give small businesses the option to choose association health plans that don’t adhere to Affordable Care Act protections.
Beshear argues this policy threatens to take away coverage for over 400,000 Kentuckians with preexisting conditions that the AHP’s don’t want to include, so he supports Minter’s pre-filed bill, Bill Request 180, that would protect these conditions such as insulin for diabetes.
“My son lives with type 1 diabetes, which is a preexisting condition. Prior to the ACA’s protection for him, he never would have been able to get insurance on the individual market, he would always have to be insured through a group policy,” Minter said.
Bevin has also recently been under fire after he initially refused to disclose the purpose of his out-of-state flights in the state-owned plane, telling the Daily News in a recent interview that if taxpayers did not pay for it, it’s none of their business.
“The real question is: Why does it matter what the purpose (of the trip) is? Did taxpayers pay for it? If they did, then they should know the purpose. If they didn’t pay for it, it’s none of their business,” Bevin said.
On Friday, though he is not legally required to do so, Bevin released a log of his trips that will be updated monthly. But the Courier Journal reported that day that there are several trips not included in the list.
Lasley says this race is similar to a previous election in 2007 when Steve Beshear ran against incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
“When Andy’s father, Steve Beshear, was first elected he was running against an incumbent governor who wasn’t particularly popular,” Lasley said. “Republicans can point to (the fact that) this is not the first time that they’ve had a statewide candidate that may not be the most popular, running against a Democrat that maybe is not the most dynamic.”
Bevin is not running with his current Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, who is suing him for firing two of her staff members earlier this year. Instead, he is joined by state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester.
Beshear has joined forces with nonprofit founder and assistant high school principal Jacqueline Coleman.
Although voter registration in the Bluegrass State normally has higher numbers of Democrats, Lasley says that for the last 25-30 years, Kentucky voting patterns have trended to the right.
Lasley added that President Donald Trump will likely make a stop in Bowling Green to endorse Bevin before Election Day on Nov. 5.
He is predicting a close race, and that not only voter turnout, but where the voters turn out, will be among the biggest deciding factors.