Politics

In a new book, former Gov. Steve Beshear defends his administration’s approach to the Affordable Care Act, funding cuts to the state’s ailing pension systems and same-sex marriage.

The Democratic governor left office in 2015 and says his 361-page book “People Over Politics” is about bringing different political stripes together.

“I spent eight years as governor of Kentucky with divided government,” Beshear said. “I had a Republican Senate and Democratic House and I was a Democratic governor, but after elections were over with I was able to bring people together.”

Beshear points to work with Republican Senate President Robert Stivers on legislation curbing so-called “pill mills,” Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana on the Ohio River bridges project and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers on the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative in eastern Kentucky.

But Beshear’s signature action might have been his most politically divisive — the embrace of the Affordable Care Act. He issued executive orders that expanded the state’s Medicaid eligibility and created the state health exchange, Kynect, leading to more than 500,000 gaining health coverage.

Kentucky’s U.S. senators — Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul — became two of the most vocal critics of the policy. In the book, Beshear describes the complicated political landscape of Obamacare in Kentucky and takes aim at conservative opponents to his health care initiatives.

“[I]t seems that too many Kentucky lawmakers who fly into Washington forget the hurt and suffering back home once they cross the Potomac,” Beshear writes. “As a governor, I was much too close to my people’s needs to ignore the opportunity that the ACA provided to dramatically transform the Commonwealth.”

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Beshear pictured with his wife, Jane, on the cover of his book “People Over Politics.”

Addressing his views on same-sex marriage, Beshear said that his position “evolved” over the course of his life and governorship.

“While I was governor, I finally reached the point where I said you know, if two people love each other and want to have a long-lasting legal relationship, then they ought to be able to do it,” Beshear said.

But he stands by his decision to defend the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage when it was struck down by a federal court.

“I felt very strongly that we had to get this issue up to the U.S. Supreme Court and get a final decision,” he said. “I felt like that most Kentuckians would say ‘well I may agree, I may disagree but it’s over with, let’s move on.’ And I really think that’s what’s happened.”

Beshear took office in 2007, succeeding one-term Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher at the beginning of the recession.

Over the course of his eight-year administration, Beshear and the legislature cut $1.6 billion in state spending — including less money set aside for Kentucky’s ailing pension systems.

“Yes, we knew our budget choices caused the unfunded liability in our public pension systems to grow, but education, job creation, health care, and public safety were higher and more immediate priorities,” Beshear writes.

Beshear also pointed to his work with the legislature in 2013 to restructure pension benefits for most state workers and require the state to make larger contributions, starting in 2015.

“Right now, just throwing some money at it is not going to solve this, you’ve got to do a long-term plan and you’ve got to do it with independent folks who are not going to play political games with it,” Beshear said in an interview.

Tres Watson, communications director for the Republican Party of Kentucky, issued a statement after the book was released criticizing Beshear’s handling of the pension systems.

“His 8 years of poor stewardship are part of the reason we are in this mess,” Watson said. “For him to downplay the dire straits the pension system finds itself in is irresponsible yet unsurprising.  He is more concerned with his own legacy than the well-being of the state that elected him.”

After leaving office, Beshear returned to work at the Lexington law firm of Stites & Harbison. He wrote the book with his former speechwriter Dan Hassert.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.