A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Former Governor Steve Beshear talks about people and politics at NKY Forum event in Newport

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear was the featured speaker at the Northern Kentucky Forum’s café series Wednesday morning at the Campbell County Public Library Newport Branch.

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear talks about his career in public service and the challenges facing the Commonwealth, and the country, at the Northern Kentucky Forum cafe series presentation at the Campbell County Library Wednesday (photos by Mark Hansel).

Beshear reflected on his life of public service, his accomplishments as governor and issues currently affecting the Commonwealth and the country.

Upon leaving office, Beshear wrote People Over Politics with his speechwriter, Dan Hassert, and formed the nonprofit, A Stronger Kentucky, an educational organization that donates revenues from sales from the book to charitable organizations.

“You all, and other people in Kentucky, gave me the opportunity to do what I could do for eight years,” Beshear said. “So, if I’m going to talk about those opportunities and what we did and what we accomplished, I feel like if any money comes in out that, it ought to go out to the people of the state.

The two-term Democratic governor signed copies of the book after the event and later in the day at Roebling Point Books and Coffee in Covington.

He said the book is about public service and how to make government work again.

“I think all of us will agree, it’s not working very well right now,” Beshear said. “I don’t care what side of the aisle you are on, Republican or Democrat, I don’t care what your ideology is, government is broken right now, particularly in Washington D.C.”

The message of the book he said, is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Partisan politics, gridlock, is slowly destroying this democracy,” Beshear said. “I had a Republican-controlled Senate, a Democratic-controlled House. Once (the) elections were over with, I was able to get folks to remember that we were Kentuckians first, and Democrats and Republicans second.”

Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear addresses the crowd at the Northern Kentucky Forum event at the Campbell County Public Library Newport Branch Wednesday.

When Beshear took office for his first term in 2008, he almost immediately went from the elation of being elected, to the challenge of governing a state during a very difficult period in the country. The U.S. economy was on the verge of a historic collapse and he was faced with cutting $430 million from the state budget in order to keep it balanced.

“Many of you were sitting around your kitchen tables every night, trying to figure out which bills to pay first and which to push off…and all of those kinds of things you wrestled with during that tremendously difficult financial period,” Beshear said. “In essence we did the same thing in state government, because, unlike the federal government, we have to balance our budget. We wrestled with that for two or three years, just keeping our head above water.”

At the end of his eight years in office, however, the nation’s economy had, for the most part, recovered and Kentucky was recognized as one of the leaders in that effort. In the last two years of Beshear’s second term, Site Selection Magazine awarded Kentucky the Governor’s Cup, which is given to the state that ranks highest in the country in terms of job creation per capita.

The state set export records five years in a row, brought in an estimated $21 billion of new investment and created about 90,000 new jobs. The unemployment rate dropped from more than 11 percent at the height of the recession to 4.9 percent when Beshear left office.

Beshear also talked about his administration’s effort to improve education in the Commonwealth. He said Kentucky has wrestled with fundamental weaknesses for decades that have limited its opportunities to move forward.

“You’re not going to be a top state in the country if you are not an educated state,” Beshear said. “You don’t change things overnight, you build on past accomplishments of other governors and that’s what we did.”

During Beshear’s administration, the college and career readiness rate improved from 38 percent to 64 percent. He credits then-First Lady Jane Beshear with working to raise the state’s compulsory attendance (dropout) age to 18, from 16, where it had been since 1920.

Beshear admits that it took a few years, and a strategic appointment of a political rival, to begin making progress.

Former Republican Sen. David Williams, who ran against Beshear for governor in 2011, was nominated for a state judgeship in 2012. Williams had been a strong opponent of Beshear and stymied the former governor’s efforts to get legislation approved.

“When his name came up as one of three people to be considered for that judgeship, I couldn’t think of a more qualified person to be judge,” Beshear said.

Sen. Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) took over as senate president and Beshear said they developed a good working relationship.

There was no compromise on basic ideological differences, such as Democratic efforts to raise minimum wage, or Republican attempts to pass right-to work-legislation, but they were able to find common ground on other issues.

“We would sit down before every session of the General Assembly out at my farm, just the two of us, and we’d look at our list of what we wanted to do,” Beshear said. “We figured out what we could do together and the system worked because of that. The word compromise is not a dirty word, it’s an essential word, if you are going to get anything done.”

One of the biggest surprises of his administration, Beshear said, was the recognition he received for his efforts to improve health care.

Beshear signs a copy of his book, People Over Politics, for Jack Moreland, president of South Bank Partners, at Wednesday’s Northern Kentucky Forum event.

“Health care is so complex and so expensive, no state has the wherewithal financial, or otherwise, to really make a huge difference,” Beshear said. “Overall, Kentucky was one of the least healthy states in the country. When you look at health statistics, we’re at the bottom of every one of them.”

Improving those statistics was not on Beshear’s radar screen because the state didn’t have the money. Beshear said the implementation of the Affordable Care Act changed that.

My advisors said to run from it as fast as you can because President Obama has a 30 percent approval rating in Kentucky and politically this would be a disaster,” Beshear said. “I couldn’t, because I looked at our state, I looked at our health status and said if there was one thing that I could change that would make a long-term difference, it would be to raise the collective health of our people.”

Beshear made the decision to implement Kynect, the state health insurance exchange and expand Medicaid.

“The federal exchange didn’t work so well, so that made us stand out even more,” Beshear said. “It was great that we became a national model, simply because ours worked, but it did. People came out in droves.”

In 2016, the federal government approved Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to dismantle Kynect.

Beshear said there are a lot of problems with the health care plan at the federal level and he hopes that now that the partisan efforts to replace Obamacare have “hit the wall” there will be a compromise.

“They may do some things that I don’t like, and they may do some things that the other side doesn’t like,” Beshear said. “But it’s time for us to sit down and put people’s health first.”

The Northern Kentucky Forum partnership is dedicated to civil, civic discussion of public affairs. The café series is designed to be a less formal, less structured session to offer a chance to hear from public officials and other civic leaders.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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