FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear reaffirmed his support for a teachers' pay raise and made a pitch to overhaul a criminal-justice system soaking up too much of the state's money as he delivered his first State of the Commonwealth speech to the Republican-dominated legislature.
Speaking to a statewide television audience Tuesday night, the state's new Democratic governor outlined a broad agenda that includes protecting health-care coverage, tackling criminal-justice reform, ending cuts to higher education and embracing new gaming-related revenues.
Beshear, who made support for public schools the hallmark of his successful 2019 campaign, said education is the key to breaking cycles of poverty in the state. He called for bipartisan cooperation on education and other issues as Kentucky embarks on a new era of divided government.
“It’s time to come together, all of us, in support of public education," he said. “This is a new opportunity, a new start with a new governor, where we can all pledge to lift up our communities by supporting and investing in our public schools. We can wipe the slate clean, and we can move forward in support of public education together."
Beshear said the budget plan he submits to the legislature later this month will include his campaign pledge for a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for teachers.
“These teachers deserve a raise," he said. “They are on the front lines of every problem we face as a commonwealth — from family-member addiction, to hunger, to the need for better jobs. And right now, we face a teacher shortage that threatens the education of our children."
Beshear made no mention of his predecessor, former Gov. Matt Bevin, as he touted the need for a new era of civility. It was a contrast to his former Republican rival's caustic brand of policies.
The governor's approximately 35-minute speech was greeted with polite applause throughout.
Beshear pledged to “embrace" higher education as part of his “education-first budget."" He also promised to support fully funding the state's public pension obligations — another big-ticket pledge.
He urged lawmakers to take on the health-care issue as part of the road map for a brighter future for the state.
“That requires that our Kentucky families don’t have to worry about losing health care coverage because of a preexisting condition," he said. “I hear members of both parties say those very words. So this session, let’s pass a state law ensuring no one can lose coverage in this state, ever again, based on a preexisting condition."
He urged lawmakers to pass legislation to curb the costs of insulin to help the approximately 530,000 Kentuckians with diabetes. He also embraced legislation to end surprise medical billings.
Beshear stressed the need for new revenues to meet the state's growing needs, endorsing a sports betting bill already introduced. He made another long-shot pitch for legalizing casino gambling — a campaign pledge that appears to face strong resistance in the legislature.
“Right now we are watching more than $500 million in gaming revenue go across the border to states like Indiana, Ohio and Illinois," he said. “It's time to stop that flow."
Beshear urged lawmakers to pass criminal-justice reforms to reverse skyrocketing corrections costs that soak up money that could go for education and health care. Such a package should reduce prison populations, reduce repeat offending rates and provide “meaningful" addiction treatment, he said. It also needs to “consolidate and not expand our state prison institutions," he said.
The governor also called for equal pay for women and made a pitch to make Kentucky a leader in agriculture technology. He embraced speeding up the Mountain Parkway project in eastern Kentucky.
The Tuesday evening event was the first of two major speeches the governor will deliver to lawmakers this month. Beshear will present his budget plans to lawmakers in late January.
Kentucky entered an era of divided government when Beshear was elected governor last year. He has stressed the need for civility as he and lawmakers work on state policy.
The governor continued that theme Tuesday evening, telling lawmakers: “Let me be clear, every moment we focus on partisanship, every moment we focus on national divisions, we fail to address the reality before us." That reality, he said, includes Kentucky's dismal rankings in per-capita income, child abuse, education and disease rates,
The legislature's top two leaders — House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers — later praised the governor's tone but said his agenda ultimately will be decided by the details of his proposals.
“I think at some point in time, we’re going to have to dispense with the pleasantries and talk about governing.” Osborne said.
Stivers added: “It’s now time to start having real discussions about real problems and finding real solutions. And that will be the key to this, to see if his rhetoric will be matched by his actions.”