Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin used his fourth State of the Commonwealth address Thursday as a launching pad for his gubernatorial reelection bid, choosing to highlight his administration’s accomplishments rather than lecture lawmakers.
Gone were the calls for legislators to take bold stances. Gone were the pledges to call a special legislative session for pension reform. They were replaced with pats on the back, both for the Republican-led legislature and his administration, for their accomplishments during his first three years in office.
“The state of the commonwealth is strong, very strong,” Bevin said. “We have much to celebrate tonight.”
On a rainy and balmy night, Bevin ticked through a list of the campaign pledges he made when running for governor in 2015. His tone was markedly different than it was two months ago, when he surprised lawmakers by calling them into a special session to address pension reform.
“I think it was a really good reset for him after a rocky year for all of us in tackling some of these tough issues,” said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. “I thought he displayed just the perfect tone and hit on the perfect issues and the messaging was right on target.”
Democrats, though, weren’t impressed. Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, said the governor’s speech lacked a vision for what he wanted the legislature to accomplish this session.
“You have to do more than call for unity when you come in front of the legislature,” McGarvey said. “You have to actually show that ... you are willing to work with the legislature that you have not talked to over the last two years.”
Bevin started by highlighting legislation that allowed people to opt-out of paying union dues at workplaces with organized labor contracts, saying the legislation has helped the state create jobs. He flashed a slide on the screen in the House Chamber that touted $17.7 billion in planned investments and 49,870 new jobs promised.
“You all deserve the applause for this, you all have passed the legislation,” Bevin said.
Although Bevin had criticized bills approved in 2018 that changed the tax code and attempted to overhaul the state’s ailing pension systems, saying they didn’t go far enough, he chose instead to focus Thursday on what he felt were the positives of the laws.
He said the tax bill, which he vetoed but lawmakers approved anyway, caused the Tax Foundation, a conservative Washington D.C. policy group, to move the state’s ranking for business-friendly tax codes from 37th to 23rd.
Instead of talking about the controversial pension bill that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2019, Bevin instead highlighted the legislature’s decision to fully fund the pension system.
“This is the first administration, supported in turn from legislation that has come out of this body, that has ever fully funded the ARC (actuarial recommended contribution),” Bevin said. “Ever.”
The ARC is the amount the state’s pension groups estimate is required to maintain a healthy system.
Bevin even mentioned a literal clean up the government. Bevin ordered the exterior of the Capitol cleaned after taking office and launched a campaign to clean up and refurbish many of the state’s parks.
“This is the first time since this building has been built in 1910 that the exterior of the building has been cleaned,” Bevin said.
Bevin took a subtle jab at Attorney General Andy Beshear when talking about federal overreach, saying his own administration had to fight back against pro-LGBTQ policies, such as Obama-era regulations regarding gender-neutral bathrooms in schools, because Beshear wouldn’t. He also jabbed at Beshear for not defending some of the state’s abortion laws that have been challenged in the courts.
“The constitution provides a choice that is between a woman and her doctor for at least the first two trimesters of a pregnancy and I’m going to enforce that constitutional right,” Beshear said after Bevin’s speech.
Beshear is one of three high-profile Democrats running for the chance to challenge Bevin for the governor’s seat, alongside House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins and former Auditor Adam Edelen.
Bevin then highlighted several policy areas where he said more work is needed.
“We still have so much work to be done here,” Bevin said. “We know that.”
Bevin started by showing pictures of two students who were killed in the Marshall County High School shooting in January 2018.
“How many of you have pictures just like this in your home?” Bevin asked before commending the legislature for making a school safety bill their top priority of the 2019 legislative session, even though it does not come with any new funding to implement its recommendations.
“They are grateful to you,” Bevin said of the parents of the two students who were killed. “And they thank you and I thank you and the people of Kentucky thank you.”
Bevin also talked about a Louisville child, Seven Bridges, who recently died by suicide. Bevin said Bridges killed himself because he was bullied and said people need to be reminded to love one another.
Bevin then hit on several other of his priorities that remain hanging, from his plan to add work and community service requirements to the state’s Medicaid program for able-bodied adults, to improvements for the state’s foster care and adoption system.
He said there are 9,705 children in foster care in Kentucky, including about 2,700 who are waiting to be adopted.
“We are largely a people of faith, different faith, different creed different faith...” Bevin said. “If out of 6,500 houses of worship we can’t find a home for 2,700 children, what are we doing when we go to these places of worship every week?”
The governor closed with a call that could be considered an ask to campaign for him, telling lawmakers to celebrate the work they’ve done over the past three years.
“Spread it around, spread the word,” Bevin said. “Tell your constituents what you have been doing.”