After eight years, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear leaves office on Tuesday. In this interview with WKU Public Radio’s Lisa Autry, the two-term Democrat talks about his accomplishments, regrets, and future plans.
The country was in a recession when you took office in 2008. Are you satisfied with how you are leaving Kentucky’s economy?
I’m very excited about where we are from an economic standpoint in Kentucky. As you mentioned, when I came into office, the Great Recession had just hit us in the face. All our families and state government were suffering, but we worked through it, and look today at just how far we’ve come. We got up to 11 percent unemployment during the recession. We’re now at 4.9 percent. That’s lower than the national average and it’s lower than most states. We have created a lot of jobs and more are coming online. We just announced 2,000 more jobs at the Ford plant in Louisville. Our economy is beginning to boom. It’s not all over the state. In our coalfields, we’ve got some issues, but overall, I feel very good about the economy.
As you leave office, tax revenue is expected to grow in coming years and the state is expected to have a budget surplus at the end of this fiscal year, but your successor has said the state is in a “financial crisis” considering the $500 million in additional expenses in the next budget in areas like pensions and Medicaid. How do you respond?
The incoming administration is going to start off with a better financial picture than I’ve had for eight years. They ought to be excited about that because the economy is booming and they’re going to have a lot more revenue to deal with in terms of what they want to do for Kentucky. There are always more demands for money than there is money, but that’s what leadership is all about. You have to make tough choices and decide what your priorities are. You have to move the money around to where you think it will do the most good. They’re going to being able to support education, they’ll be able to continue the health care advances we’ve made, and they’ll be able to come up with a long-term solution for the teacher’s pension system. We did that during my eight years with KERS, and they’ll be able to do that for this too. So, they’re in good shape and they’re in a lot better shape than I ever was.
The state has seen a lot of changes in health care due to the Affordable Care Act. In your view, where have we made the greatest strides and what are the challenges going forward?
If there’s one thing that will affect future generations more than anything else we have done in the Beshear administration, it will be the fact that we now have about 92 percent of our population covered by affordable health insurance either through Medicaid or through qualified health plans. We are one of the least healthy states in the country. We have to do better than that. I think we would all agree that the healthier our population is, the better off our state will be. Everyone ought to be on board with better health care for all of our people. We found a way to do it and it’s affordable. We have studies that show its affordable and they’ll be able to do it in the next budget with no problem. I just hope this administration will take a good, hard look at the facts and continue this positive momentum we’ve got in terms of health care for our people. Kentuckians are excited about having health care and about 500,000 have it for the first time.
Your successor, Matt Bevin, has indicated he will dismantle the state’s health insurance exchange Kynect and tighten eligibility for Medicaid. Are you worried about the future of health care in Kentucky?
I’m concerned about it because of all the political rhetoric that has gone on, but the incoming governor is a business guy and he knows how to look at numbers and data. We’ve got two studies that look at actual data of what has happened so far with this health reform and it’s all positive. We’ve created 12,000 jobs in a year-and-a-half, and that’s a fact. It’s not a Steve Beshear political talking point. We’ve put over a billion dollars more into the hands of providers, and the uncompensated care provided before is now being compensated and the providers are doing so much better. The whole economy will do better with this health reform and our people will do better. I’m hopeful that in the end he will look at the reality of this as opposed to the politics.
Eight years ago, one of your campaign pledges was to expand gambling opportunities in Kentucky. Every year, efforts failed in the General Assembly. What do you think happened and do you think casinos are still a possibility in the state?
I’m disappointed we couldn’t make some progress on expanded gaming. We were able to get historic racing at our racetracks and that has helped with the purses and the horse industry. It hasn’t really produced a whole lot of tax revenues for general use like expanded gaming would. I’ve found that when you’re trying to push this idea, it’s like herding cats. You’ve got the racetracks that want it one way and the breeding folks wanting it their way. It’s very difficult to get everybody to agree on anything in that area. I don’t know what the future of it might be. I think the incoming governor has said he doesn’t want to do it, so I assume there won’t be much movement on it.
What other regrets do you have as far as initiatives you weren’t able to accomplish?
I wish we had made more progress on tax reform. I had a blue ribbon commission that studied that and put out some great ideas of what we could do to broaden our tax base and tie our tax structure more to our economy, so that as our economy grows then our tax revenues would grow. That’s going to have to happen in Kentucky at some point. That doesn’t mean that you run out and raise everybody’s taxes, but what it does mean, is that you find ways of broadening the tax base, eliminating some exemptions and deductions, and modernizing the tax system to where you get more tax revenue.
You’ve touted a lot of accomplishments during your two terms in office. With that being said, why do you think Republicans have made so many gains recently?
The governor’s race didn’t go the way I wanted it to, but the people have spoken. I think they voted for a whole lot of reasons. I think any talk of somebody having a mandate is just silly because I didn’t have a mandate in the two elections I won. You can’t really point to winning an election and say ‘They agreed with everything I said.’ I saw some interviews after this last election where they interviewed a fella in eastern Kentucky where he was sitting in a heath clinic getting health care for the first time and he was so excited. He said “This is gonna save my life!” They asked him who he voted for in the governor’s race. He said, “I voted for that Bevin fella because he’s an outsider.” They said, “Don’t you realize he campaigned on taking health care away from you?” He said, “Surely, he won’t do that. That’s saving my life.” I think that’s so typical of the average voter. They don’t pay a lot of attention to the issues. They make a decision based on a sound bite or a TV ad. That’s why I think you take a step back after you win an election and figure out what you want to do and why. You have to listen to people out there. On this health care thing, people like this, people want to keep this, and I would stay an idea of yanking it away from them is not going to go over very well.
What do you want your legacy to be?
The people of the state sort of decide that. I don’t know what they will consider my legacy to be. I don’t even know if they’ll remember who Steve Beshear was in ten years or so. I always say you just have to leave that to the people of the commonwealth. When Jane and I came in, we said we wanted to leave this place better off than how we found it. I think we’ve done that. From a jobs standpoint, we’re so much better off. I think we’ve done it from an education standpoint, and then this healthcare thing of having 92 percent of our people having affordable health care is going to be huge for us over the next few generations. So, I’m proud of what we’ve done, but there’s a lot more to do. While I’m leaving public office, I’m not leaving public life. I’m gonna still be around an advocated for things that will make our state a better place to live. Jane and I love Kentucky and we aren’t going anywhere. We’re gonna be right here for the rest of our lives.
What are your plans after leaving office?
I’m certainly not going to run for public office. I’m done with elective politics. I’m interested in making sure our House of Representatives stays in Democratic hands. I’ve had a pretty good working relationship having a Republican Senate and Democratic House. I think sometimes it’s helpful to have divided government. I’m gonna be actively involved in pursuing health care reform, not just in Kentucky, but maybe around the country. I’m taking a look at a lot of things.