Kentucky Primary 2019: Matt Bevin Touts Record Despite Unpopularity

May 13, 2019

Credit J. Tyler Franklin

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin is running for re-election this year. He’s got three primary challengers and low approval ratings after a series of gaffes and insults towards public school teachers. But he also has widespread name recognition and economic development successes to hang his hat on.

When he took office in late 2015, Bevin became only the third Republican governor of Kentucky since World War II. The election represented a sea change in Kentucky politics, which had been dominated by Democrats for much of state history.


Bevin’s agenda received a boost in 2017, when Republicans took control of the both chambers of the legislature for the first time in state history. Since then, Bevin has signed several conservative initiatives into law — a “right to work” policy, repealing the prevailing wage, charter schools, several anti-abortion measures and budgets that have cut much of state government.

Bevin has also tried to make changes to the state’s pension systems in order to address a $37 billion pension debt, one of the worst in the country. Though Bevin’s attempts to alter pension benefits for future state workers have been unsuccessful so far, he done much to change the way the state’s pension systems are governed — adopting more conservative assumptions for investment returns, which have in turn led to larger cash contributions from state coffers and agencies.

As part of WFPL’s coverage of the primary election, reporters reached out to Bevin requesting an hour-long interview to discuss his policies. His campaign did not respond, so the following stances are based on past remarks Bevin has made on the issues.

Pensions

These comments are from an event held by the Louisville Rotary Club on April 25, 2019. Bevin addressed his rationale from shifting state workers, including teachers, away from “defined benefit” pensions that guarantee benefits from retirement until death.

“These [defined benefit] plans when they were set up had 25, 30 people for every person retiring. A defined benefit plan is not you getting your own money back at the end, it’s you living off of these people who are working for the benefit of the people that are retired. It worked great 50, 60, 70 years ago when you had dozens of people [working] down here for every one [retired] here, but it began to change and we knew it would because demographically, this is where we’re going in America.

“Guess how many workers we have in Kentucky for every retiree? Less than one. It’s already over, it has inverted. This has been happening for decades. When I moved to this town I came to work for a firm that managed money, a firm called National Asset Management that came out of First National Bank of Louisville. That company, I managed money for pension plans. None here, but the point being is that it was the same demographic that was happening in America. You saw what was coming, for 20-something years I’ve seen this state ignore this problem. It’s why I ran for governor.”

Revenue

These comments are from an event held by the Louisville Rotary Club on April 25, 2019. Bevin addressed why he opposes revenue-raising proposals like casino gambling and recreational marijuana. Bevin has advocated for overhauling Kentucky’s tax code to generate more revenue, but has not produced any hard proposals yet.

“I am in no way shape or form a proponent of legalizing medical marijuana, that is a suckers’ bet. Let’s assume there is no societal cost, and that it’s all just upside. That there’s no correlating effect to anything else that might possibly go wrong in society and that it’s just a pure money maker…let’s say it did generate what some propose it might, $100 million per year. And let’s say we really did dedicate it to the pension problem, for example. The odds that future governors and legislatures are not going to sweep it [use the money for other programs] are pretty slim.

“Then people talk about casino gambling, all the money’s going across the river, it’s going here and there. Maybe it is. Some people actually like to go other places to do this. They don’t frankly want their pastor or neighbor to see them at the casino, don’t kid yourself.

“We could indeed benefit financially from [casino gambling]. Assuming there’s no societal cost. And trust me, if it was such a fantastic panacea, Atlantic City would not have had the struggles it has had. And indeed, it would now be Mecca as opposed to quite the opposite. That said, those who think that it is and it has no societal cost, let’s just pretend they’re right. And that we could get, as some have estimated, $200 million per year if we had casino gambling. In which case, I again say, we could all gamble as much as we want. It would take us 300 years to pay what we currently owe. But, the good news is, if we gamble and smoke pot at the same time, it will only take 200 years to pay what we currently owe.

“The point is, these are not solutions. They are ideas, they don’t come close. The only way we pay off this obligation is over the next 30 years, in doing things like level-dollar funding, which was in this bill that was struck down by the [Kentucky] Supreme Court. And people cheered, not realizing they were cheering their own demise. But interestingly, it’s going to take 30 years or more to pay it down. And it’s going to come by having more people living here paying taxes. That’s it. There’s no other way to do it, there’s not.”

Medicaid Expansion

These comments are from an interview with the PBS News Hour on Jan 15, 2018. Bevin has proposed requiring able-bodied Medicaid recipients to prove they are working, volunteering or in school in order to receive benefits. Bevin asked the federal government to approve the changes in 2016, but a federal court has blocked them from going into effect.

“We currently have nearly one-third of our population — we’re 4.5 million people, and we have just short of about — we’re about 1.5 million of us right now are on Medicaid. Now, there was already probably 20 percent of our population, 20 to 25 percent, on traditional Medicaid, and that is for the medically frail, the aged, the infirm, pregnant women, children, those for whom the program was originally designed.

“Since the expansion of Medicaid to able-bodied people of low financial means, we have seen that number go from 20 percent, 25, 30 and now fully a third of our population. So what is it we’re looking to change is, we simply want, for those that are able to be engaged in their own health outcomes, we want them to be, because there’s dignity and self-respect that is offered to people through the ability for people to do for themselves.

“This program [Medicaid] is not intended, this expansion of the requirements, is not intended for those for whom Medicaid was originally designed, those that we just mentioned. It’s not intended for those who are primary caregivers or those who are students. And, in fact, if people are already working, then they have met the requirement. It isn’t just a requirement simply to work. If they are not working, they also could take classes toward certifications and education that would allow them to find jobs. They could also volunteer in their community. The key is to have them engaged in their communities, because it is through that engagement that people have healthier outcomes. They have an interaction with people. They become a part of the fabric of their community. It’s better for them, and their health, and for their children and their families as well.”

Abortion

These comments are taken from the “Right To Life” rally in Frankforton March 7, 2019. Bevin has signed several anti-abortion measures since becoming governor. Many are locked in court battles.

“When you are the governor, you are accused of many things. But one of the things that I take great pride is being accused of being the most pro-life governor in America, I love it. Who would want to be anything other than pro-life? I do not understand why we would want to celebrate the alternative. Who among us would want to celebrate the taking of innocent lives? Of not speaking up for those who have no voice? Of an unborn child, who is being targeted simply for the convenience of somebody else?

“And the one thing that concerns me more than anything else is the idea that this was supposed to be — as we were led to believe — something that was rare, something that was safe and legal. Well I’ll tell you what, the gild has come off that lily. It isn’t about being rare. You look at what’s happened in New York, where we had people literally cheering for infanticide, literally cheering at the idea that we would kill a child after it had been born. That we had elected men and women, standing up and applauding. These are the kind of things that we have got to stand in the gap against. As was mentioned a moment ago, we are the watchmen on the wall. We see what’s happening. We have a responsibility to speak up, we have a responsibility to speak out.”

Opioids

These comments are from a Facebook Live event Bevin hosted on May 31, 2017. 

“How will we stop this epidemic? It’s many parts. There is not enough money, there are not enough programs at the bottom of the funnel, rehab and others, if we simply try to fix the problem when we are actually at the bottom of the funnel. We’ve got to close the funnel of addiction at the top, make it smaller and smaller. That’s what we need to work on closing. Not simply trying to deal with people at the bottom of the funnel. How are we going to stop this without curtailing people’s ability to get access to pain medicine?

“I want to make a couple things very clear to people — 80 percent of the people who are addicted to heroin started abusing prescription drugs first — opioid pills, first. 85 percent of all the opioids that are prescribed in the world are prescribed in the United States. Last year in Kentucky, 359 million doses of opioids were prescribed to 4.4 million people. That’s 75 pills for every single man, woman and child in Kentucky. I know there’s pain. There’s clearly pain. People who have chronic pain that has been clearly diagnosed, people that have cancer, people who are perhaps home on hospice care. But I’ll tell you, we’re not in that much pain and we’ve got to be very, very careful about how we’re going to curtail the number of people who are falling into that funnel.”

School Choice And Charter Schools

These comments are from Bevin’s State of the Commonwealth Address in 2017.  The legislature passed a charter schools bill in 2017, but never passed legislation that would fund them. No charter schools have yet opened in Kentucky.

“We need Kentucky to not be one of seven states in America that still has a monopoly on public education dollars. Because, with all due respect, we’re not doing as well as we could be. We’ve got great teachers, we’ve got great administrators, we have great superintendents and principals. But the reality is, they’re buried in bureaucracy, they’re buried under such an unbelievable mess as it relates to all the extraneous auditing and testing and things they are required to do. This has got to change.

These comments are from an impromptu press conference in the Capitol Rotunda on March 5, 2019. Bevin signaled his support for a bill that would have created a tax break for donations to private school scholarships. It did not pass.

“Why wouldn’t we allow in this state somebody who wants to help a young person get the best possible chance in life? And to be rewarded in some measure, the person giving the money with a small tax break that the state could provide in order to help them facilitate a young person who has very limited means to be able to get the best quality education that they and their parent would have them have?”

Climate Change

These comments are from a rally in Paradise, Kentucky on Feb 9, 2019 opposing the proposed closure of a coal-fired power plant.

“In a vacuum, it’s wonderful to imagine that on a sunny day the sun is going to power our electricity and the wind is going to blow — but it’s not real, it’s not realistic. It looks great on paper, it sounds good, it is conceivably possible, but it’s not realistic. And because it’s not realistic, this is a battle worth fighting. And for all the people who say, well it’s a losing battle, that’s what cowards say. Cowards are afraid to do the right thing, and the people of Kentucky are not cowards and that’s what I love about this state.”

Economic Transition For Coal Communities

These comments are from the “Connecting Silicon Valley To Silicon Holler” event, which took place at Big Sandy Community and Technical College on March 13, 2017.

“Nobody likes red tape. The beautiful thing about it, I don’t care about what your political ideology, nonprofit, for-profit, nobody likes red tape. Cutting red tape is something embraced by all, making it easier to do business in Kentucky is part of the battle. Looking for ways in which from a tax standpoint it could be advantageous, that is something that we’re looking at. But one of the most powerful things we can do that we are in fact doing is starting to understand that you’ve got to start training people at an earlier age.

“You’ve got to start to infuse in young people the belief that there is this possibility and to start to be exposed to things, start to get an exposure and an understanding of things so it’s more intuitive to people even as they get older.

“To that end, a couple of things — dual credit is something that we just implemented, starting in the high school but ultimately we’ll be working down. One of the most powerful things we’ve done though is this workforce development initiative, where we’ve dedicated $100 million for the next two years to be able to pour into creating the types of training programs where you can pour into a Bitsource or an Interapt, fill in the blank, where you could come alongside something that already works and say ‘how can we scale that?’ Not looking to build new buildings necessarily, but rather programs.

“To me, more than anything, it is workforce development that is going to make Kentucky shine because my vision for Kentucky is that we become the engineering and manufacturing hub of excellence in America.”

About this series: WFPL invited all eight Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates to sit down for an hour-long interview with a panel of our reporters on a variety of policy issues. Five responded in some way. We’ll be rolling out profiles of those five candidates in the coming days, along with a profile of Gov. Matt Bevin; while he wouldn’t sit for an interview, in his first term as governor he’s established a policy record from which voters can draw.