Politics & Government

Beshear reflects on accomplishments, regrets as time in governor’s office draws to an end

Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear answered questions during an exit interview at the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort, Ky., on Nov. 17, 2015. Beshear's second term ends in early December when Governor-elect Matt Bevin is sworn in.
Gov. Steve Beshear and First Lady Jane Beshear answered questions during an exit interview at the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort, Ky., on Nov. 17, 2015. Beshear's second term ends in early December when Governor-elect Matt Bevin is sworn in. palcala@herald-leader.com

With his days dwindling as Kentucky’s governor, Democrat Steve Beshear took time Tuesday to tout his eight years in office and reflect on his regrets of making “no meaningful progress” in tax reform and not bringing expanded gambling to the state.

Beshear, 71, said his time as governor marked the most challenging and rewarding parts of his and his wife’s life. Steve and Jane Beshear have been married for 46 years. She participated with him Tuesday in a type of exit interview Tuesday with reporters in the State Dining Room of the Governor’s Mansion.

Beshear said he will leave the state in good financial shape for his successor, Republican Matt Bevin, who takes office Dec. 8.

The outgoing governor again expressed hope that Bevin will re-evaluate his position of dismantling Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid and creation of Kynect, a health insurance exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Beshear also said he will make an announcement in a few days about the state’s process of restoring civil rights to felons. Departing governors usually announce restoration of rights and pardons before leaving office.

Beshear contended in the nearly hour-long interview that his administration has made “tremendous” strides in the quality of life in Kentucky.

Faced with a global recession in his first year in office, Beshear said the state’s unemployment rate reached 10.7 percent before falling to 5 percent in recent months.

In education, Beshear said he protected classroom spending during 15 rounds of budget cuts that totaled $1.6 billion and, with his wife’s support, raised the dropout age in the state from 16 to 18. About $194 million in new construction is underway at the state’s 16 two-year colleges.

The state’s high school graduation rate has climbed to 86 percent and its college and career readiness rate has improved from 34 percent in 2010 to 62 percent in 2014, said Beshear.

In transportation, Beshear said his administration figured out a way to fund two new bridges over the Ohio River in Louisville and get construction started on both. The downtown bridge is expected to open next month.

And throughout the state, Beshear said broadband Internet access is expanding and efforts are being made to revitalize Eastern Kentucky as coal jobs decrease.

Beshear said he is particularly pleased that the number of Kentuckians without health insurance dropped from 20.4 percent to 9 percent through Medicaid expansion and Kynect.

Beshear claimed the expansion brought nearly $3 billion in direct payments to health providers in the first 18 months and created thousands of jobs to provide needed care.

Bevin has said he will tighten eligibility rules for Medicaid and shutter Kynect, shifting people to the federal health insurance portal.

Beshear declined to state his personal opinion on same-sex marriages, saying “I’ll get around to that one of these days but not today.”

Asked about his major regrets, Beshear mentioned his inability to enact tax reform and expanded gambling.

He set up a task force on tax reform and campaigned on expanded gambling but saw nothing come of them.

He said a call for tax reform gained no support and that various interests in expanded gambling could not agree on a specific plan. He said that was “like herding cats.”

His most difficult time in office, Beshear said, was dealing with an ice storm that gripped the state in 2009.

Though Beshear often is criticized for not doing more to rescue the state’s financially ailing retirement systems for employees and teachers, he said a task force he formed this year is expected to come up with solutions. He predicted that it will take about 20 years to solve the problems.

Beshear was asked why Republicans racked up so many victories in this year’s elections if his administration had performed so well.

He said elections are decided on a lot of issues, noting that some Kentuckians probably voted on their feelings about Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized them.

Beshear noted that Democrat Jack Conway won Rowan County in the governor’s race.

The governor maintained that he did the right thing in appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court a federal judge’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. If there had not been a final decision, “we would have had 80 to 90 Kim Davises,” he said.

Beshear declined to state his personal opinion on same-sex marriages, saying “I’ll get around to that one of these days but not today.”

The Bevin administration will inherit an $82 million emergency fund, Beshear said. It will be in a position to write a balanced budget, he said, adding that there is never enough money to do all that is needed.

Beshear also gave a nod to Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, saying they provided “good leadership” and were willing to work with him on thorny issues, such as curbing the state’s pill mill and heroin epidemics.

A lawyer by trade, Beshear said his wife and he will “take a little time” to relax but there are some projects he wants to tackle. He did not identify them.

He predicted that after Dec. 8, he will wake up in the mornings and wonder why his phone is not ringing.

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198, @BGPolitics

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