Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear spent four hours in Covington on Wednesday, ceremonially breaking ground at the new $4.8 million Kentucky Career Center and announcing hundreds of new jobs at Downtown's RiverCenter office towers where two homegrown high-tech companies are growing. The whirlwind visit began at the Madison Events Center where he spoke at the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's government forum.
Though his voice was weak as he came out "on the other side of a bad cold", Beshear spoke for nearly an hour on the Brent Spence Bridge project, health care reform, and the upcoming legislative session in Frankfort.
He also dusted off a joke about a Covington strip club, similar to one he made at a previous visit.
"I like being here at the Madison but gosh, I do miss the Grand because we always had a bigger crowd with Club Venus next door," the governor said to loud laughter.
It was nearly a year ago to the day that Beshear spoke at a Chamber meeting at the Grand and made a similar joke. "It's great to be back here at Club Venus," the Democrat joked at the time about the gentleman's club next door. He shared a story of visiting the Grand in 2011 in the midst of his successful reelection campaign where he laughingly worried that a photographer may have been lurking nearby to take a snapshot of him close to Venus's entrance.
Kidding aside, there were serious issues on the table, not the least of which was the Brent Spence Bridge project, one that Beshear and Ohio Governor John Kasich committed themselves to seeing happen, with tolls.
When Beshear first campaigned for governor in 2007, he said he heard from Northern Kentuckians about the need for a replacement bridge. "I believed you then and I believe you today because I know it's needed and I think most of this area knows it's needed," the governor said Wednesday.
"Now we have to find a way to finance it and there are no great answers. One answer that is not there anymore is the federal government riding in on a white horse with a sack of money. I wish it did. Twenty-five, thirty years ago they were doing things like that but honestly, when they can't agree on the time of day in Washington, I don't believe they're coming with any sacks of money."
He explained the process of building two new bridges between Louisville and southern Indiana, a $2.6 billion project that involves tolls on one of them. When cracks emerged in the Sherman Minton Bridge there forcing it to be closed, traffic congestion swelled and the urgency of the situation was clear.
"All at once everyone in Louisville understood why we needed those bridges," Beshear said. "It came home real quick when people were commuting for two, three hours instead of twenty minutes."
"You can't imagine what would happen if we had to shut (the Brent Spence) down right now. Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky would be parking lots. Commerce would screech to a halt."
Though Beshear conceded that the situation in Northern Kentucky is different than in Louisville because there are multiple other bridges linking it to Cincinnati and Louisville only had two connecting it to Indiana, the governor said that his agreement with Governor Kasich to work cooperatively puts our region "ahead of the game".
"It's an interstate issue," Beshear said. "It's important to Ohio, it's important to Kentucky."
For the Louisville project, the state road fund will contribute $50 million annually. "The state is stepping up and putting our tax dollars in building those bridges," the governor said.A low-interest federal loan knocked $100 million off the price tag, he said.
"And yes, tolls are going to be part of financing."
Beshear said a financing plan for the Brent Spence Bridge will be completed by the end of December. He emphasized that the plan would be preliminary and that a similar plan developed for the Louisville project changed fifteen to twenty times.
"I ask everyone not to panic. We have to put one out for the federal government," Beshear said of the forthcoming financing plan. "It will have a lot of options in it. That's the next step."
Meanwhile, Beshear is working with legislators in the region and looking at the budget to see what, if any, steps could be taken there.
"We'll take this one step at a time to see how we can make this come together because this is a need here. If we are realistic and if we can be flexible, I think we can find a way to make this happen. Now, every part of it may not be palatable to all of us but I think most parts we can put together that will work."
Beshear said that whatever design is decided upon for the bridge, he would ensure that Covington is not adversely affected. "In the end, I want us to end up with a new artery of transportation in this region. It has to be done if this region is going to move forward," he said.
Celebrating success of kynect
The governor, who has become a recent staple of cable & network news and large newspapers for the successful rollout of the Commonwealth's expanded health care opportunities, discussed why he decided to move quickly in implementing Kentucky's role in the federal Affordable Care Act.
He said he was given two options: do it yourself or the federal government can do it for you. "Thank goodness we decided to do it ourselves," Beshear said, an apparent jab at the troubled federal health care website. "We proved once again that Kentuckians know how to do things."
Kentucky branded its expanded Medicaid coverage and health care marketplace as "kynect" which is enrolling approximately 1,000 new customers a day since its October 1 launch.
The creation of kynect was not a decision Beshear made lightly, he said. "I had the same question every businessman in this room would have had," he said. "Can we afford this?"
Of the 640,000 people in Kentucky without health care coverage, it was predicted that 332,000 would become part of kynect to buy health care plans with about 92% qualifying for a premium subsidy. The others would qualify for expanded Medicaid.
He brought in Price Waterhouse and Coopers and the Urban Institute at the University of Louisville to study the potential economic impact.
Six months later the report came back. "They looked me in the eye and said, Governor, you can't afford not to do this," Beshear said. The report indicated that expanded health care opportunities in Kentucky would infuse $15 billion in the economy, crate new jobs, and have a potential budget impact of $800 million.
"Once I got those figures from objective experts, and secondly, knowing if I could afford it, it was the right thing to do for our people," Beshear said.
"The results have been amazing so far," Beshear said of the 72,000 people that have enrolled. "People are excited about this. These people have never had health insurance before."
Lean budget awaits next General Assembly session
When the General Assembly reconvenes in Frankfort early in 2014, the 60-day budget session will not have much money to work with.
"Just like every other budget, it's going to be a tough one," Beshear said. He took office in December 2007 and the recession followed in January 2008. "I've been cutting every since."
The governor said he has had to balance the budget twelve times in six years, taking $1.6 billion out of the spending column. "We've been smart and level-headed in how we did," he said. "We didn't use a meat ax."
Some agencies saw their budgets cut by as much as 38%.
Though Beshear placed the education of Kentucky's children at the top of his priority list, "We haven't put a dime in textbook funding for the last six years. Not one dime have our school districts had to buy new textbooks."
School safety funding was cut by 60% and the amount of money spent per pupil has gone down as the number of kids in classrooms has gone up, Beshear said.
To reverse those trends would require substantial investment. The governor said a 1% increase in SEEK funding (state money for local districts) would cost $29 million. To restore cuts in textbooks and teacher training, $57.2 million. Cuts to in child care assistance, $52.7 million.
"That's why incremental growth is not enough for us to do what we need to do in the future for education in the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
Beshear will call for tax reform when the General Assembly meets next year, a move he said could benefit education funding. "The fact is, Kentucky will have a difficult time investing in our people as long as we rely on an archaic revenue structure better suited for an economy that no longer exists in Kentucky," he said. "Meaningful tax reform has to be on the table."
In spite of the budget troubles facing education in Kentucky, Beshear highlighted some successes. Kentucky was the first state in the nation to adopt the Common Core
standards and second in the nation to adopt Next Gen Science
The state is evaluated as tenth in the country in education, a jump from thirty-fourth. Harvard ranks Kentucky as eighth in student improvement over the last two decades.
"But we have almost reached the point and I think we have reached the point where our educators are not going to be able to do much more without additional resources," Beshear said. "It's time to start reinvesting in education in this state and that's what tax reform is all about."
The governor said that tax reform does not mean "run out of here and raise everybody's taxes" but to revise a system for a 21st century economy to gain more revenue.
Expanded gaming issue is still alive
One missing revenue stream for education funding is expanded gaming, something Beshear campaigned on and has ought for throughout his time in office, unsuccessfully.
"I know I've got tire tracks on me for the last six years for the bus running over me. I keep turning around and can't find anybody behind me," Beshear said. "We are leaving so many millions of dollars on the table."
The governor pointed out that there is a proposal for the next session that could revive the discussion.
He'd like to see a Constitutional Amendment voted on by the people after the legislature determines how the funding would be used.
He predicts that, if enacted, expanded gaming in Kentucky could generate $200 million or more annually.
"We could buy a lot of textbooks, all the things we need to do to reinvest in our children," Beshear said. "I think most of us are over the hump on whether we need to do it. Let's just go do it."
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News