Preparing for the arrival of Republican lawmakers who will determine the fate of many of his priorities, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday called for cross-party cooperation during a legislative session that will be dominated by work on a two-year state budget.
Kentucky lawmakers convene Tuesday for a 60-day session that will stretch into mid-April. Since they last met, Bluegrass State voters ushered in a new era of divided government with Beshear’s ouster of Republican incumbent Matt Bevin in last year’s gubernatorial election.
Since his victory, Beshear has emphasized the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the need to avoid acrimony when disagreements surface. He returned to that theme Monday during remarks at the inaugural ceremony for five Republicans elected to statewide offices.
“We can find common ground,” the governor said. “We can work across the aisle. We can work across constitutional offices. We can work across branches of government to make sure that we are ultimately providing the very best life and opportunity for each and every one of our families.”
The result would be a “better budget” and “better outcomes” for the state, Beshear later told reporters. Republicans hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate, giving them considerable leverage in dealing with Beshear in shaping the budget and other legislation.
Beshear offered some early previews of the budget plan he’ll submit to lawmakers in late January.
“Education is going to come first,” he told reporters. “And we’re going to make sure that we solve this teacher shortage that we’re seeing, which impacts our children’s education year after year. We’re going to do everything we can to reinvest in our classrooms.”
The new governor has pushed for a $2,000 across-the-board pay raise for public school teachers.
His other budget priorities are health care — including the state’s Medicaid expansion — as well as fully funding public pension systems and creating better-paying jobs, he said.
In putting their imprint on the next state budget, lawmakers will confront considerable spending pressures amid projections for only modest revenue growth in the coming years. Rising costs for pensions, health care and corrections will overshadow their work.
Asked if his budget will assume any new revenues to help pay for his spending plan, Beshear said Monday there are several potential options to consider. Beshear campaigned on the need to legalize casino gambling, but some leading GOP lawmakers have called the idea a nonstarter.
Legalizing sports betting in Kentucky appears to have the “most momentum behind it,” he said, and could generate tens of millions of dollars in new money. To put that in context, the governor said that purchasing new textbooks for Kentucky’s schoolchildren would cost about $17 million.
“Anything we do is going to be very reasonable,” Beshear said. “It’s going to be something that we have discussed with the legislature. My job is to present a responsible budget, and I’m going to.”
Another possible revenue generator could be legalization of medical marijuana — a proposal backed by Beshear that has died in Kentucky’s recent legislative sessions but will come up again in 2020. Beshear’s support for taxing medical marijuana will run into resistance in the legislature.
“I believe that it can be done in a revenue-positive way where no one is priced out of medication they may need but it will also help the budget in so many other areas,” the governor said.
Prison reforms also will generate considerable discussion during the legislative session, Beshear said, noting that rising corrections costs are unsustainable.
The day before the spotlight turns to the legislature, the five Republicans elected to statewide offices in last year’s election participated in the inaugural ceremony at the state Capitol on Monday. Participating in the ceremony were Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Secretary of State Michael Adams, state Auditor Mike Harmon, state Treasurer Allison Ball and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.