FRANKFORT — Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear gave his eighth and final State of the Commonwealth Address to lawmakers Wednesday night, boasting of the progress Kentucky has made since he took office and delivering his wish list for the 2015 General Assembly.
Beshear devoted much of his 55-minute speech to what he considers his legacy: his decision to participate in the federal Affordable Care Act, making Kentucky "the only Southern state to both expand Medicaid and create its own state-operated health benefit exchange," as he put it. Hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians are getting health insurance and medical care for the first time, while thousands of jobs are being created in the state's health-care industry, Beshear said.
"As a young student, I remember reading with awe about the coming-of-age era of this fledgling nation and how Kentucky was seen by those looking westward as a bastion of education excellence, the home of brave explorers, a place for religious leadership, a laboratory for medical pioneers and the training ground for political statesmen," Beshear told the assembled House and Senate members. "I don't need to tell you that somewhere during the centuries since, Kentucky lost its way."
"My friends, we can hold our heads high once again," Beshear said. "Because Kentucky is back, and we're back with a vengeance. Once again, we are the talk of the nation."
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In coming weeks, the governor said, he'll release an analysis by consulting firm Deloitte that lawmakers repeatedly have requested, estimating the costs and benefits of expanded Medicaid in Kentucky and what the state will have to pay as the federal share of the costs shrinks.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, called the speech "inspiring."
"It was a lot of how he has brought Kentucky from the depth of despair to the precipice of doing great things," Thomas said. It is left to lawmakers and the people to continue building on what Beshear accomplished, Thomas added.
Beshear, 70, will finish the second term allowed him by law in December.
Notably absent from Beshear's speech was any reference to legalizing casino gambling, which was a key part of his 2007 and 2011 campaign platforms. Political momentum for casinos faded as Kentucky's horse-racing industry squabbled over details and casino expansion in other states produced disappointing returns.
He also made almost no mention of the taxpayer-subsidized pension systems for state and local government employees and school teachers, which face billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities and have damaged the state's credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow money. Among other critics, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce calls the public pension shortfall a "significant threat." In one sentence toward the end of his speech, Beshear said he and the legislature have "put our public pension system back on the path to stability."
For the coming 30-day legislative session, Beshear asked lawmakers for several items that have failed in previous sessions, including:
■ A statewide indoor smoking ban, to match what some cities like Lexington already have in place.
■ Expansion of court protective orders to include dating partners, not just couples who have married, lived together or had children.
■ A constitutional amendment to give local governments the right to pass their own local option sales tax to pay for individual projects.
■ A bill to address the state's heroin epidemic, with more treatment spaces for addicts and tougher penalties for traffickers.
■ "P-3" legislation that would allow more public-private partnerships on "mega transportation projects," such as costly new bridges proposed to cross the Ohio River at Louisville and Cincinnati. Beshear also said it would be a mistake to rule out tolls as one method to help pay for new bridges, however controversial tolls might be.
■ Stronger booster seat requirements to cover children through age 9 and 57 inches in height, rather than stopping at age 7 and 40 to 50 inches in height.
"Simply put, seat belts are designed for taller bodies," Beshear said. "And our failure to act is putting kids at risk."
After the speech, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said their chambers are likely to deliver at least two of those bills — on heroin and dating violence — during this 30-day session. Stumbo added that, regarding the public pensions, he expects to introduce legislation this week that would authorize the state to issue bonds — essentially, borrowing money to pay down the unfunded pension liability.
Stumbo said that Beshear, a fellow Democrat, earned the right "to toot his horn" by to citing his accomplishments as governor. Stivers acknowledged that Beshear is getting national recognition for Kynect — the state's health-benefit exchange — but he said he still has questions about the program's true success record and ultimate cost.
In his speech, Beshear struck a self-congratulatory note while talking about the state's economic progress since the 2008 recession. Beshear said that when he succeeded Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Kentuckians were losing their jobs, businesses were struggling to survive and the state budget "was a red-inked disaster, with a $430 million shortfall waiting as an immediate problem to be solved."
"But today?" Beshear asked. "Today the picture and the mood are just the opposite. Progress and success over the last seven years have fostered a sense of optimism and energy."
Beshear credited himself and lawmakers for restoring ethics to government and cutting $1.6 billion in state spending while protecting "core services like education, public safety, health care and job creation." Beshear said they also worked together to push education, health care and economic development initiatives that made Kentucky a more attractive place for employers. The state's jobless rate was 10.7 percent during the worst of the recession, Beshear said. Now it's "6 percent and still falling."
"My top priority has been to create a workforce that executives can't wait to hire," Beshear said.