Just days into his term as Kentucky’s governor, Democrat Andy Beshear already has checked off some big priorities from his to-do list: a new state school board installed; the education commissioner gone; more than 140,000 nonviolent felons’ voting rights restored. Now comes the hard part — working with a Republican-led legislature with its own policy priorities.
“This week’s actions are pieces of cake compared to what he faces in terms of building a budget and getting a program through the legislature,” longtime Kentucky political commentator Al Cross said. Beshear’s aggressive start as governor was possible because he did most of it with executive orders, fulfilling promises he had made during the campaign.
Another executive order is expected any day now — one that would rescind his Republican predecessor’s effort to impose a work requirement as a condition for Medicaid health coverage. Despite a narrow victory margin in the election, Beshear could benefit from being the anti-Bevin. The man he ousted, former Gov. Matt Bevin, was known for fostering contentious relations even within his own party, and most election post-mortems have blamed him for his own defeat.
That could work to Beshear’s benefit, making Republicans wary of his predecessor’s combative ways more receptive to his overtures about bringing back civility in politics. But some key Republican lawmakers said Beshear’s lofty words about cooperation weren’t matched by his action reorganizing the Kentucky Board of Education. Beshear appointed a partisan board without consulting with Senate Republicans, said Senate President Robert Stivers. “It is apparent that collaboration and cooperation have yet to come to Frankfort as promised by Gov. Beshear,” Stivers said.
Stivers noted that the Senate ultimately has confirmation power over the governor’s appointments. Things are sure to get even more complicated when Beshear submits a two-year budget plan to lawmakers in early 2020. Beshear faces a budget shortfall that could exceed $1 billion, based on a memo the Bevin administration circulated on its way out. Key contributors to the state’s bleak budget situation are pension, Medicaid and corrections costs.
Despite the dire forecast, Beshear has forged ahead with his promise to make public education a priority. He has committed to including in his budget blueprint the $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for public school teachers that he campaigned on. “If our public schools — especially those in struggling areas — are going to survive and thrive, we need to make sure they are adequately funded,” Beshear said in his inaugural speech Tuesday. “That means looking at class size, providing technology and striving to give every child true opportunity. This is not a partisan issue. This is a Kentucky issue.”
Beshear, who won the election with strong backing from teachers, could build alliances with rural GOP lawmakers in his push for public schools, Cross said. “That’s why we don’t have charter schools funded in this state,” he said. “That’s why we don’t have tax credits for private education. Because rural Republicans are big supporters of public education.”
It was Beshear’s opposition to charter schools that spurred his first big decision as governor — disbanding the state school board and then recreating it with 11 new members. Beshear announced the board reorganization in his inaugural speech. Two days later, the new state school board accepted Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis’ immediate resignation. The state will start a national search for a permanent replacement. With the actions, Beshear had dispatched school board members and a commissioner who support charter schools.
Lawmakers voted during Bevin’s term to allow charter schools, which get public funding but operate outside of state standards. But lawmakers did not vote for a permanent way to pay for them, and the concept hasn’t gained a foothold in the state. Beshear was promptly sued by 10 of the school board members he dismissed. They say state law protects them from removal before their terms end when there’s no just cause for dismissal.
On another issue, Beshear basked in the type of setting governors to crave — a cheering crowd in the state Capitol Rotunda — when he issued the order Thursday to restore voting rights for more than 140,000 nonviolent offenders who completed their sentences. “Today, a day that I thought I’d never see. ... Gov. Beshear gave me back my equality as an American,” said Rynn Young, who has never voted due to his drug conviction as an 18-year-old in the late 1990s.