Steve Beshear governed with compassion

Gov. Steve Beshear at Fancy Farm in August.
Gov. Steve Beshear at Fancy Farm in August.

After 22 years in public service, the last eight as governor, Democrat Steve Beshear hands over the reins of state government to Republican Matt Bevin on Tuesday.

We’ve opined in the past that Beshear would go down as a caretaker – a highly competent caretaker – but one whose aspirations for Kentucky were pinched by economic crisis, partisan gridlock and perhaps his own aversion to political conflict.

We are happy to admit that Beshear proved us wrong. He took on Kentucky’s twin demons of disease and addiction by seizing the opportunity, created by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, to expand health-care access to 500,000 Kentuckians.

If Bevin builds on what Beshear has started, within a generation, Kentucky will, as Beshear has said, reap great dividends as one of the nation’s sickest populations grows healthier, happier, more able and less dependent. A mighty legacy.

Beshear did not need the legislature to expand Medicaid and set up Kynect. Disappointingly, he shied from tackling another longstanding challenge that would have required wrangling with lawmakers: tax reform.

Even though shortfalls forced him to re-balance the budget 15 times and cut $1.6 billion in state spending, Beshear did not use the crisis in the state’s pension funds to push for the tax changes recommended by his own blue-ribbon commission, changes that could have produced an extra $659 million a year. So, one of his legacies will be overdue budget-busting pension obligations, which Bevin can’t ignore

Beshear, who often decried the partisan dysfunction in Washington, launched SOAR in partnership with Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, to plan for redeveloping Eastern Kentucky. We wish that Shaping Our Appalachian Region was already producing jobs, but, remember, when Beshear and Rogers unveiled the effort in 2013, just talking about alternatives to coal was political blaspheme. Give the duo credit for advancing the conversation, committing public funds and personal political capital and also for launching a major expansion of high-speed Internet into rural Kentucky.

While this might sound like damning with faint praise, students of Kentucky politics have to admire Beshear for leaving office scandal free.

The exception is the chronic, low-grade corruption that characterized the relationship between state government and the coal industry, compounded by budget cuts that decimated environmental enforcement. Yes, the fund-raising for his son’s campaign for attorney general was a bit tawdry, but it worked. We were disappointed that Beshear did not clean up the culture of secrecy in the state’s child protection agency.

Beshear had been in office less than a year when the bottom fell out of the global economy. The state’s unemployment rate hit 10.7 percent; it is now 5 percent, the lowest in years. Beshear is rightfully proud of how his administration managed the economic crisis, restoring the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to solvency, recruiting new employers, working to increase exports and reforming economic incentives to support existing businesses. Major expansions by Ford and Toyota were a vote of confidence in Kentucky.

While budget constraints limited what he could do beyond the federally-funded health care expansion, Beshear’s legacy is also the accretion over eight years of smart, humane decisions, some in concert with the legislature, some on his own, including raising the dropout age to 18, expanding health care for children and pre-school, cracking down on pill mills, penal reform, ending privatized prisons, luring an offshoot of a federal lab working on battery technology to Lexington, two new Ohio River bridges in Louisville and putting a small team to work on smart energy policy even while telling the Environmental Protection Agency to “get off our backs.”

One of his final acts, restoring the vote to more than 100,000 non-violent felons, (too late, it should be said, for their votes to do him or his son any good) is typical of the decency and compassion that are Steve Beshear trademarks.