Steve Beshear could have opted for a quiet retirement after a long legal career and more than two decades in Frankfort, where he served as a state legislator, attorney general, lieutenant governor, and two-term as governor.
Instead the 73-year old Democrat is touring the state promoting his memoir, is teaching a course on leadership at Harvard University, and is advocating for the Affordable Care Act.
Beshear appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his new book, “People Over Politics,” which details the highlights and challenges of his gubernatorial administration and his philosophy on governing.
During his eight years in office, from 2007 to 2015, Beshear, a Democrat, faced a divided legislature: Democrats held the House of Representatives, and Republicans controlled the Senate. Yet Beshear says his approach was to get lawmakers to bridge their partisan divides.
“Most times I could get those folks to remember that they were Kentuckians first, and Democrats and Republicans second,” Beshear says. “When we did that, we made lots of great things happen.”
It didn’t hurt that the state and the nation faced the biggest financial crisis of his lifetime, Beshear says. The day after he took office, he had to cut more than $400 million from the state budget. As the U.S. economy continued its downward spiral, Beshear would ultimately have to slash state spending by a total of $1 billion.
“It helped me to push people push off of that partisan pathway and bring them in together, learn to trust each other enough that you could find some common ground on issues, and move the state forward,” he says.
Pension Payments Versus Essential Services
Among the hard choices the Beshear administration had to make was how to fund state services, pay down the growing debt in Kentucky’s public pension programs, and maintain a balanced state budget.
“When we had that recession I had a choice: I could either fund K-12 education and some health care… or I could pay down on our credit card, which was the pensions,” Beshear says. “I don’t apologize for choosing K-12 education and higher education and those kinds of essential things that help people keep their heads above water.”
But short-changing the state’s contributions to public employee and teacher retirements contributed more than $35 billion in unfunded liabilities in those pension systems. Beshear says he knew it was a “huge problem;” that’s why he says he sought a nonpolitical path to a solution. He brought in the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts to review the retirement programs and offer potential solutions.
Those recommendations became part of bipartisan pension reform package that passed the General Assembly in 2013. That legislation mandated that the state pay the full actuarially required contribution to the plans each year, end cost-of-living adjustments for retirees that weren’t properly funded, and implement a cash-balance retirement plan for new state workers.
Beshear says the Pew consultants said if the state stuck with that plan, the pension programs would be back on sound financial footing within 20 years. But now, current Gov. Matt Bevin and Republican leaders say more and bigger reforms are needed to keep the programs solvent.
Beshear contends the Pew approach can still work, and he decries how partisan the pension reform discussion has become. He fears there may be ulterior motives at play.
“All of this sky is falling stuff, if it is to try to get our legislature to raise some revenue, that’d be great because we need more revenue in this state,” Beshear says. “But if it is a guise to cover the idea that this will let us whack K-12 and higher education and all these things that we don’t like anyway, shame on them.”
“It would be doomsday if we did nothing for the next 40 years,” Beshear continues, “but as long as you get a reasonable plan together and you keep funding at a reasonable level, we’ll be okay.”
The Health Care Governor
Early in his first term, Beshear’s staff urged the new governor to consider what he wanted his legacy to be and then work toward that goal. Beshear says he resisted the idea of focusing on only one big accomplishment because he wanted to help the state in so many areas.
Then Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, which paved the way for Beshear to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income Kentuckians and create a health insurance exchange to offer private plans to those who didn’t receive coverage through their employers. Those actions became the signature accomplishments of his administration.
“If you’d have told me back early on that I would now be known as the health care governor, I would have said you’re crazy, because a governor in any state doesn’t have the kind of resources it takes to make a huge difference in health care,” Beshear says. “But then along came the Affordable Care Act. It gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference.”
Beshear says he was keenly aware of how unpopular President Barack Obama and his “Obamacare” were with Kentucky voters. That’s why his staff named the state exchange Kynect so as to avoid some of that negative baggage. Then Beshear travelled the state to personally sell the program.
“I just said to people, you don’t have to like the president, you don’t have to like me – because it’s not about him or me. It’s about you, it’s about your family, it’s about your kids,” he says.
Kynect launched in October 2013, and Beshear says within the first 18 months of operation, the site enrolled about 500,000 Kentuckians in health insurance coverage. Kynect even became a national model as an exchange that worked, when other states and even the federal exchange site had problems.
But three years later, Gov. Bevin, a Republican, shut down Kynect, saying it was an unnecessary expense for the state when people seeking insurance could simply go through the federal exchange. Bevin has also applied for a federal waiver to overhaul and scale back Kentucky’s Medicaid program because he says the state simply can’t afford the increasing costs of the expanded coverage that enrolled thousands of low-income Kentuckians.
“There’s not an ounce of truth in [that],” Beshear says.
Beshear says studies by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and others show that the health reforms his administration helped enact are sustainable, affordable, and effective. He says the reforms have already created 12,000 new jobs in the commonwealth, and are expected to add another 28,000 jobs in the next eight years. And with more jobs comes more tax revenues for the state.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Washington continue their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Beshear says it’s no wonder insurance companies are pulling out of markets because of that legislative uncertainty and because critics have sought to undermine the ACA at every turn.
His support for the ACA has made Beshear into spokesperson for the legislation and its benefits on national media. But he acknowledges that the legislation does have some problems.
“It’s not perfect and we need to correct a bunch of things,” Beshear says. “But if Congress would just sit down and together work on correcting what needs to be corrected, then we would have an even better system than what we’ve got.”
Coal, Gaming, and Same-Sex Marriage
Beshear says one of his biggest regrets during his time as governor came in his 2011 State of the Commonwealth address before a joint session of the legislature. When discussing environmental regulations on coal mining and burning, he firmly told federal officials to “get off our backs.”
“By me just uttering those words I turned it into a political thing,” says Beshear. “It belittled a very serious problem that we really should’ve spent more time on.”
Although he says coal does still have a future in Kentucky, Beshear says the industry will never be what it once was, largely due to the impact of cheap natural gas. He admits he should have done more to help communities in the Appalachian coalfields to diversify sooner.
Beshear is also disappointed that he wasn’t able to bring expanded gaming to the commonwealth, which was a key part of his campaign platform in 2007. He says he did everything he could to push for a constitutional amendment to allow casinos, but the Republican-controlled Senate thwarted those efforts. Beshear says he still thinks expanded gaming could generate significant revenues for the commonwealth.
Progressives around the state criticized Beshear when he appealed a 2014 federal judge’s ruling that would have overturned Kentucky’s constitutional ban on same sex marriage. Beshear attributes part of that decision to how he was raised.
“When I was born back in the 1940s… in small town Kentucky, my dad’s a Baptist minister and homosexuality is not even an issue that’s discussed,” he says. “Same-sex marriage wasn’t even thought about.”
But he says he eventually came to believe that people have the right to a happy, loving relationship regardless of the gender of their partner. He says he knew it was a thorny political issue, and many people would disagree with his change of heart. So Beshear decided to keep his personal opinions on gay marriage to himself while pushing the legal appeal up to the U.S. Supreme Court. He says that would give the court the final say on the matter and provide Democrats cover on the gay marriage issue.
In June 2015, the Supreme Court overturned gay marriage bans and legalized same-sex unions across the nation. Beshear says he’s proud that nearly all of Kentucky’s 120 county clerks accepted that decision as the law of the land.
“Kentucky has come along on many issues and is a more progressive state than we ever were before,” he says, but “this was a tough issue for a whole lot of people and probably still is a tough issue.”