Governor talks virus, budget, pensions and more

Andy Beshear covered a wide range of topics during a virtual one-on-one interview with ABC 36 News

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Governor Andy Beshear covered a lot of ground in a virtual one-on-one interview with me on Wednesday.

He’s at the midway point of his four-year term in office.  He has spent most of his time fighting COVID-19 that has killed more than 11,000 Kentuckians.  I asked the Democratic governor if he thought the state’s death toll would be lower had the Republican-controlled legislature not taken away some of his authority to fight the pandemic.  His answer in a word, “yes.”  Lawmakers curbed the governor’s authority on issuing executive orders dealing with the pandemic.  The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the legislative action.

“I believe that we have seen more spread of COVID-19 than we would have had I continued to have the authority say, for masking in schools. It’s been very clear within schools that have universal masking there have been less spread in the community, that the kids have stayed in school longer. On the overall death toll, we have better therapeutics now. We’re better at treating it, but certainly I think that having every tool in the toolbox and having it at a place where the individual has the courage to actually make the tough decisions better protects us during COVID,” said Beshear.

The governor said the most personally satisfying part of the COVID battle for him has been the goodness of people, sacrificing for one another and doing whatever it takes to get through the pandemic.

Gov. Beshear is putting together a two-year budget proposal for the lawmakers to consider in the upcoming General Assembly session next month.  The governor said his budget proposal won’t have any tax increases in it.  He said he wants to build on the economic investment boom the state is enjoying.  He said his budget will target some specific areas from law enforcement and health care to education.

“So, we’ve got to invest to make sure we have the world-class workforce, which requires a world-class public education system, so you’re going to see near historic investments in both K-12 and in higher education. You’re going to see continued investments in health care. We’ve got to retain and recruit more nurses. We have to ensure that our health care system is strong. We’ve got to make sure that we have enough social workers to be out there protecting our children. You’re going to see investments in law enforcement where we are losing far too many officers and Troopers. And then, you’re going to see some investments that we were able to make in COVID that we should continue because they’re the right thing to do,” Beshear said.

The governor also wants to spend $400 million in American Rescue Plan money for ‘Hero Pay’ for essential workers who have worked throughout the pandemic.  Part of the ongoing debate among lawmakers in Frankfort is who should be included in the essential worker group.  Democrats and Republicans are working separately on trying to decide who should be included for the bonus pay and how much they should receive.

“I don’t know what the dollar amount will get down to, but it shows value. It shows that we care. It shows that we’re thankful for what these folks have done and right now there are hearings going on in Frankfort where they’re coming and they’re telling their own story. Police officers who were still out there trying to keep us safe while this virus was so unknown. I believe that if they’ll just stop and listen and hear these stories, they’ll agree that this is the right program and we can talk about how to do it, but they’ve got to sit down at the table and talk about it,” said Beshear.

Another issue lawmakers will have to deal with in the upcoming legislative session, redistricting, which is done every ten-years following the U.S. Census to make sure legislative districts have equal populations.  Senate President Robert Stivers, of Manchester, wanted a special session on redistricting before the end of the year and criticized Beshear for not calling one.

“If we’re going to do something that extraordinary, in the very least I’d ask they have a conversation with me and that simply hasn’t happened. In the end, I don’t think they’re ready. I don’t think they have their maps ready or agreed to and what we’re hearing is a lot of noise,” Beshear said.

The governor added that his door is always open, but President Stivers never walked through it.

One guaranteed battle ground every legislative session is over the budget and part of that is funding state pensions.  Kentucky’s two major public pension systems recently told state lawmakers they expect to need nearly $4.6 billion from the next two-year state budget.  The largest share of that would go to the Teachers’ Retirement System of Kentucky with the rest going to the Kentucky Employees Retirement System (Non-Hazardous), the Kentucky State Police pension fund and the County Employees Retirement System (Non-Hazardous).

Since 2017, the state has put a lot of money into state pensions to try to replenish them.

“Well, many people think that we’ve got this giant debt, that we owe money going back in time on pensions, and we don’t. We have paid every single year, what’s required for that year. What we do have is liability going forward, right? How much we’re going to owe in the future, which is vast and significant,” Beshear said.

The governor said the state would fully fund its pensions this year and next year and ensure the funds are in the best place moving forward.

Two other issues that could be hotly debated in the upcoming session, legalizing sports betting and legalizing marijuana for medicinal use.  Governor Beshear supports both issues but said they must be done responsibly.  He said Kentucky is losing a lot of money to other states that have legalized sports betting.  He said the time to legalize sports betting has come.

“When you’re watching the NFL games they’re even advertising for it now. We are simply behind. This is the way the world is going. And, let me add while we’re at it, we also need to legalize medicinal marijuana. We are, again, behind other states. There are certain individuals it can provide some real relief to.  Certainly we don’t want to see more opioid prescriptions out there. Again, it’s where the world’s going, it’s time we move there, too,” said Beshear.

The governor said he thinks both issues will pass “if” the measures make it to the floor of both chambers and is well aware that may not happen.  He said the public wants sports betting and medicinal marijuana legalized.

On a much lighter side, when asked what was on his Christmas list he said, “I will always take a new pair of socks, a new tie and maybe some less debt.”  The governor added the number one thing on his list is spending time with his family and enjoying the holiday season through the eyes of his son and daughter.

When asked if he had a New Year’s resolution he replied, “Certainly I’m hoping we can get through next year without the dog getting skunked once, and, or twice. I certainly learned my lesson on that one.”  The governor was referring to his dog ‘Winnie’ who had a run-in with a skunk last summer that left an unmistakable and undesirable odor throughout the Governor’s Mansion.




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