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Dealing with GOP Legislature Next Challenge for Beshear

Ryland Barton

Preparing to assume the Kentucky governor's post after his election showdown with incumbent Matt Bevin, Democrat Andy Beshear faces perhaps an even bigger challenge ahead — dealing with a Republican-dominated legislature determined to set its own agenda.

Although Bevin has refused to concede after Tuesday's results showed him trailing by more than 5,000 votes, Beshear has pivoted toward preparing to govern ahead of the Dec. 10 inauguration. Beshear has started reaching out to GOP lawmakers whose help he would need to pass many of his proposals.

"It's time to come together and to get to work," Beshear said at a postelection press conference.

His ambitious plans on education, health care and expanded gambling will run into a solidly conservative legislature, where lawmakers have their own ideas on how to lead the Bluegrass State — and haven't been shy about proclaiming them.

"We will take the lead in the House and the Senate on a variety of policy issues," Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer said in a postelection radio interview on WVLK.

For example, he said, "We're going to pass a bill on sanctuary cities and make them illegal in Kentucky."

In a preemptive shot during the campaign, Thayer and Senate President Robert Stivers declared that Beshear's plan to legalize casino gambling would be "dead on arrival" in the Senate.

Beshear says casinos would generate more than $500 million in yearly tax revenue, which he wants to earmark to support underfunded public pension systems. But he will need to persuade GOP lawmakers to have a change of heart.

Meanwhile, Beshear promises to wield his executive powers to fulfill more achievable campaign promises. Those include appointing new members to the Kentucky Board of Education, rescinding Bevin's proposed work-related requirements for some Medicaid recipients and restoring voting rights for more than 140,000 nonviolent felons who completed their sentences. He also promises to use his leverage to reduce pharmaceutical prices.

Beshear, whose father preceded Bevin as governor, also vows to change the tone of discourse coming from the state's top office, saying: "We can disagree without being disagreeable." During the campaign, he berated Bevin for bullying his detractors, including teachers who opposed his pension and education policies.

Beshear's biggest task will be preparing a two-year state spending plan to submit to lawmakers. His budget proposals will reflect his priorities on public education, health care and infrastructure, he said.

Thayer said GOP lawmakers will be watching to see how much money Beshear would propose putting into public pensions and whether he'd be willing to accept "structural changes" to shore them up.

"The teachers got their man, and we'll see if he is willing to take the tough decisions that are needed to save the pension system," the Republican lawmaker said.

In the House, Republicans will push a "pro-family, pro-life, conservative agenda," House Majority Floor Leader John "Bam" Carney said by phone. Education and workforce development are other priorities, he said.

Beshear says he wants to provide a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for public schoolteachers as part of an "education-first budget."

"It's easy to say that when you're on the campaign trail, but the reality is you've got to be able to have the funds to pay for that," Carney said. "We would love to do that if we can. At the end of the day, you've got to be able to find the revenue to cover those costs."

If Beshear is certified as the winner, he'll have an opportunity to forge a working relationship with GOP lawmakers, but it "will take cooperation from both sides," Carney said.

Beshear said he's willing to do his part.

"It's about working with people on the issues that you agree on," Beshear said. "And yes, you may fight on the issues that you don't, but understanding that there is always that next issue that's out there that you're going to have to come back together and work on."

Bevin asked for a recanvass of the election results that show him trailing Beshear by more than 5,000 votes, out of more than 1.4 million cast.

The Associated Press has not declared a winner, in keeping with its policy not to call races close enough to go to a recount. Although Kentucky's recount law doesn't apply to a governor's election, the AP is applying that same standard here.

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has scheduled a recanvass for Nov. 14 to verify the vote count. Bevin's recourse after the recanvass would be to formally contest the election. He would have 30 days to do so once the results are certified by the State Board of Elections. The board is scheduled to meet Nov. 21. Kentucky's last contested governor's race was in 1899.

Asked if his slim margin would make it hard for him to build relationships with Republicans, Beshear replied: "If anyone still has lingering feelings from (Tuesday) last night, I'd just say wait and watch how we do."

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