Candidates competing in the Democratic Party primary for governor appeared on Monday’s edition of Kentucky Tonight on KET.
Host Renee Shaw spoke with Rocky Adkins, Andy Beshear, and Adam Edelen about public pensions, state revenues, education, infrastructure and other issues.
This was the fifth program in a series of discussions with candidates in contested races for statewide constitutional offices this election season.
Rocky Adkins has represented Elliott, Lewis, and Rowan counties in the General Assembly since 1987. During his tenure he has served as both majority and minority floor leader in the House of Representatives, and as a budget subcommittee chair. Adkins is a graduate of Morehead State University and a former teacher. His running mate is businesswoman and attorney Stephanie Horne of Prospect.
Andy Beshear is serving his first term as state attorney general. He grew up in central Kentucky and is a graduate of Vanderbilt and the University of Virginia School of Law. Beshear worked for an international law firm in Washington, D.C., and in private practice in Louisville. His running mate is Jacqueline Coleman, a high school educator and basketball coach from Harrodsburg.
Adam Edelen is a native of Meade County and a graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. He served as director of the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security, as chief of staff to Gov. Steve Beshear, and as state auditor. Edelen is now an entrepreneur focusing on renewable energy technologies. His running mate is Louisville developer and film producer Gill Holland.
A fourth Democrat, Geoff Young, a retired engineer in Lexington, did not participate in the program. His running mate is Josh French, a machinist from Elizabethtown.
Given the Republican tide that has swept Kentucky in recent years, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee will face an uphill climb going into the general election. But Adkins says his combination of Frankfort experience over three decades, rural eastern Kentucky roots, and being a “moderate, middle of the road” Democrat make him the most electable candidate come November.
“I can bring those Democratic voters back to being Democrats,” says Adkins, “and also be able to get those moderate Republicans who have had enough of this administration.”
Beshear says his electability comes not from being the son of former Gov. Steve Beshear, but from his Frankfort experience in challenging the Bevin Administration in court, and in fulfilling promises he made when he ran for attorney general four years ago. Beshear says he’s protected children and senior citizens, addressed a backlog in untested sexual assault evidence kits, and battled the opioid crisis.
“I believe that the voters know me for me,” says Beshear. “I’m the guy that’s beaten Matt Bevin, time and time again… [and] they know I’m a person that keeps his promises.”
Public and private sector experience is also key to Edelen’s campaign. He says he exposed corruption and inefficiency as auditor, and as a businessman, he’s worked to create renewable energy jobs in Kentucky. Edelen says he’s prepared to win in November, but he contends the race must be about more than beating incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin should he be the GOP nominee.
“You cannot win an election merely when you define your candidacy in opposition to something, you have to run on what you’re for,” says Edelen. “I’m certainly proud to be running a campaign that is based on winning the future for the people of Kentucky.”
Beshear and Edelen have sparred over financial support of their respective campaigns. Earlier this month a political action committee associated with Edelen launched an ad that says Beshear’s 2015 campaign for attorney general benefited from a $100,000 donation from OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.
Beshear says the allegations in the commercial are false. (The money in question didn’t go directly to Beshear’s campaign, but filtered through the national Democratic Attorneys General Association and then a state PAC that supported Beshear.)
Beshear says he will not accept donations from drug companies, and notes that he has sued nine opioid manufacturers for their role in the drug crisis.
That PAC backing Edelen has also drawn scrutiny. Kentuckians for a Better Future is unaffiliated with the Edelen campaign, but the group’s donor list includes business associates and relatives of Edelen and his running mate, Gill Holland. Super PACS can raise unlimited amounts of money but are barred from coordinating campaign activities with candidates.
Edelen contends people, not PACS, are funding his campaign. He adds that he has not taken “a dime of corporate PAC money.”
Opponents have also criticized Holland, who is married to a director of Louisville’s Brown-Forman corporation, for not releasing his tax returns. Edelen says Holland has disclosed the same financial information that Beshear did during his campaign for attorney general.
Public Pensions and State Revenues
The three Democrats offer a range of options for addressing the public pension crisis in the commonwealth. Adkins says he would maintain the pension reforms enacted in 2008, 2010, and 2013, which he says are slowly rebuilding the funding base for the various retirement systems. To generate money to further pay down the pension liabilities, Adkins says lawmakers should close some of the $13 billion in tax loopholes that the commonwealth offers. He also wants to promote Kentucky’s burgeoning hemp and aerospace industries as a way to generate more state revenues.
But Adkins says he opposes structural changes to the systems, especially a plan pushed by the Bevin Administration to move newly hired teachers into a 401(k)-type retirement plan.
“If you don’t have a defined-benefit [pension] on the teacher side of this, we’re not going to be able to recruit the quality, the best and brightest to the classroom,” says Adkins.
Beshear says he has a plan that will generate $700 million a year for the pension systems. He would push for expanded gaming and devote all such revenues to the pension crisis; enact medical marijuana legislation and tax its sales; close unfair tax loopholes; and eliminate tax incentives to businesses that don’t pay a living wage.
“Those are four concrete areas that create hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Beshear. “Dedicate it to the pension system [and] our bond rating goes up, our costs go down, and we get back on the path to solvency.”
Critics contend that even if lawmakers enact expanded gaming and medical marijuana legislation, they would not generate enough revenue to significantly impact the estimated $40 billion unfunded pension liabilities.
“Relying on the whims of the gaming public to support something as sacred as a pension promise seems to me to be an irresponsible gamble,” says Edelen.
Instead, Edelen says he would make the pension governing boards more independent by removing political donors. He says he would also go from town to town to sell the need for comprehensive tax reform.
“In order to fully fund our schools, in order to have quality roads, in order to have a fully funded pension system, we have to have a modern tax code that rewards work and also meets the needs of the treasury,” says Edelen.
Beshear counters that Edelen’s plan is too vague.
“Comprehensive tax reform is something we need to do, but it’s a platitude without specifics,” says Beshear.
But can any Democratic governor hope to move any of these proposals through a General Assembly dominated by Republican supermajorities? Adkins says his experience in the legislature gives him an edge in that fight.
“Nothing is going to be easy, but I have the relationships to have that conversation,” says Adkins
Simply protecting teacher pensions isn’t enough to improve education, according to Edelen. He says he wants to increase school funding so that teachers can get pay raises and won’t have to pay out-of-pocket for classroom supplies. He also wants to decrease class sizes and bring more technology into all classrooms.
Edelen also says the state has a “moral obligation” to ensure that higher education is available to and affordable for everyone who wants it. He says cuts to university funding have resulted in higher tuitions and fees for students, which he calls a “tax on hope.”
Early childhood education is an emphasis for Adkins. He wants to expand pre-kindergarten to three- and four-year-olds who come from families at 200 percent of the federal poverty level. On the other end of the education path, he would make community and technical college attendance free for any high school graduate who wants to earn an associate degree or job skills certificate.
The state representative also wants to increase teacher pay and boost spending on higher education. And Adkins says it’s wrong to force colleges and universities to compete for performance-based funding.
Citing strained relations between public school teachers and the Bevin Administration, Beshear says he will emphasize rebuilding trust among educators. He says he will continue to fight for their pensions and their right to protest, but he also says he wants to make teachers a partner in everything the state does.
As for higher education, Beshear says he will demand that colleges and universities offer lower tuitions before they pursue any new campus building projects.
The Economy and Infrastructure
The attorney general says he wants to foster investment in areas in which he argues “Kentucky can be first, not last.” He pledges to promote agricultural technology that can feed a growing global population facing climate change. He also wants the state to lead in the design and manufacturing of robotics, and in expanded health care services.
A recent Brookings Institution report says Kentucky is among the states of greatest risk of losing jobs to automation. Edelen says that’s why he wants to transform the state’s economy to focus on creating jobs in the renewable energy sector. He also says state government must do a better job of balancing economic development with environmental stewardship.
Adkins says he supports a phased-in increase of the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, perhaps going as high as $25. He also proposes a major infrastructure initiative to update aging water, sewer, and transportation systems across rural and urban Kentucky. Adkins contends there’s no better place to spend taxpayer dollars than on infrastructure improvements.
Despite funding and construction problems with the KentuckyWired project, all three candidates say the state must continue efforts to bring high speed, broadband Internet into every home and business. Beshear says he would keep the parts of KentuckyWired that are working, and fix the parts that aren’t. Adkins says he would find new public- and private-sector partners who can complete the project. Edelen says he would serve as the state’s “connectivity czar” and convene the stakeholders needed to ensure that all Kentuckians receive broadband service.
Coleman is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Andy Beshear. She has taught high school civics, coached basketball, and has served as an assistant principal in the Nelson County Schools. She says her top priority will be to return public education back to the state’s teachers, students, and families.
“There is no more important time to have the voice of educators heard across Kentucky than during this war on public education,” says Coleman. “It is real, it’s affecting our public schools, it’s affecting the next generation of Kentuckians.”
Coleman says Beshear wants full funding of public education, including money for textbooks, classroom technology, teacher development, and transportation. But she says their administration would oppose charter schools, vouchers, and other school choice measures, which she says are about privatizing public education and turning it into a for-profit venture.
On health care, Coleman says they will push for lower prescription drug prices and ensure that women and seniors don’t pay more for medical services. She says Beshear will work to codify the best aspects of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into state law so as to protect Kentuckians from adverse changes to federal health care policy. She says they will also rescind Gov. Matt Bevin’s Medicaid waiver the day the Beshear administration takes office.
In 2014, Coleman ran for state representative as “pro-life, compassionate Democrat.” (She lost that race.) Now she says she supports a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health choices.
“I don’t believe that the government has any business in a doctor’s office,” says Coleman. “We should have the right to privacy to be able to make those decisions.”
She says the Beshear-Coleman ticket also supports more mental health counselors in schools, and more prevention, treatment, and recovery options for those dealing with substance abuse. They also advocate for automatic voter registration when a person turns 18, automatic restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who have completed their sentences, and longer voting hours on election days.
Coleman says she released her tax returns shortly after filing for office, and Beshear has released his tax information every year he’s been in public office.
“It’s about being open and honest,” says Coleman. “If you want to serve in public life, then that’s something that you need to do to prove to Kentucky families that you’re not bought and sold.”
A native of North Carolina, Holland has led redevelopment projects in Louisville’s NuLu and Portland neighborhoods. As lieutenant governor in an Adam Edelen administration, Holland says he will first do an audit of all state-owned buildings to ensure they are as energy efficient as possible. Then he says he will focus his entrepreneurial and marketing skills on helping to revitalize rural Kentucky communities.
“We have all these authentic, amazing stories to tell in all these small towns,” says Holland. “We need to revitalize the tourism aspect of the true Kentucky… We are woefully under-leveraging our tourism opportunities.”
Holland says access to quality health care and education are fundamental rights for citizens, and without them, Kentucky cannot be competitive in the 21st century economy. He says he and Edelen support universal pre-kindergarten programs. They also want to increase teacher pay, especially for those educators who work in low-performing schools, and provide more wrap-around services for students. He says schools should receive as much funding for mental health programs as they do for school resource officers. Holland calls charter schools, vouchers, and scholarship tax credits a “slippery slope” that will rob funding for public education.
On criminal justice issues, Holland says their ticket supports bail reform and the decriminalization of marijuana.
“We locked up 11,000 Kentuckians last year for having one joint,” he says. “That costs taxpayers $50 million. That’s dumb.”
If the legislature won’t support full restoration of voting rights for those who have paid their debts to society, Holland says Edelen will personally sign restoration orders for each of the thousands of Kentuckians currently barred from the ballot. Holland says they will remove other barriers to voting, and he says he supports moving elections for statewide constitutional offices to even-numbered election years to coincide with federal races.
Holland says he’s proud of the detailed disclosure he provided about his personal finances. He says the only difference between that disclosure and his income tax return, which he declines to release, is that the financial disclosure does not reveal his total income. He justifies his decision to not release his tax return by saying his children don’t need to know how much he makes. However, if elected, Holland pledges to donate his salary as lieutenant governor (about $125,000) back to the state treasury.
“Nobody should make money from being in a political office,” he says.
As lieutenant governor in a Rocky Adkins administration, Horne says she will be an active partner in helping him accomplish his vision for the commonwealth.
“I’m all in for fighting for public education,” says Horne. “I’m all in for making sure that we fight for health care for our citizens. And our infrastructure, I’m all in to make sure that we have roads, we have bridges, and we have broadband.”
A real estate attorney in Louisville, Horne served one term on the Jefferson County Board of Education. She says she opposes tying teacher pay to student performance, and she’s against charter schools, saying they would take money away from traditional schools.
“We have to make sure that we’re supporting that teacher, to make sure that they have professional development, that they have textbooks, that they have the materials they need to teach and that they’re not reaching into their own pockets to do that,” Horne says. “If we can fully fund our public schools, imagine what we can do.”
An educated and healthy population is the foundation for job growth in Kentucky, according to Horne. She advocates for more mental health professionals in public schools, providing more funds to foster and kinship care families, and maintaining the Medicaid expansion enacted by former Gov. Steve Beshear.
Horne says the state should also provide more education, job training, and addiction treatment options to inmates so they have a better chance of being productive and self-sufficient upon their release from prison. She says the Adkins-Beshear ticket also supports restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons who have completed their sentences.
As a state lawmaker, Adkins has voted for legislation that restricts access to abortion. Although she says she respects the views of all Kentuckians on the issue, Horne says reproductive decisions should be left up to the woman, her faith, and her doctor. She says when Adkins voted to limit abortions, he was representing the constituents of his district.
“As governor… [he] will represent everybody in Kentucky,” Horne says. “Rocky will honor his oath of office to follow the constitution and the laws of the land.”
Finally Horne says she and Adkins both released their tax returns because they want to be transparent with and accountable to voters. She says that addresses the question of whether an elected official has any financial conflicts of interest.
Click here to see other Kentucky Tonight candidate conversations from the 2019 primary election season.