Politics & Government

New Gov. Matt Bevin: Kentuckians want to do better

Governor Matt Bevin gave his inaugural speech during a swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol Steps in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 8, 2015.
Governor Matt Bevin gave his inaugural speech during a swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol Steps in Frankfort, Ky., on Dec. 8, 2015. palcala@herald-leader.com

FRANKFORT — Acknowledging “a difference between campaigning and governing,” Republican Gov. Matt Bevin on Tuesday challenged Kentuckians to move past partisan rancor, unite with their neighbors and sacrifice for their communities in a 33-minute inaugural address that he delivered without a prepared speech.

Bevin pointed to the state seal on his lectern, with the state motto “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” and asked the thousands of people in the audience, “Do you believe that? Do you believe it? Do you believe that this is true?”

“This is our Kentucky,” said Bevin, surrounded on the Capitol steps by six previous governors and scores of other past and present state leaders. “This is our opportunity. This is our ability to become the greatest version of ourselves that we could possibly be.”

Bevin is only the second Republican governor in a generation in a state government that has traditionally been dominated by Democrats. He preached a gospel of self-reliance and smaller government, calling his 9-point victory over Democrat Jack Conway “a cry for help” from Kentuckians who are weary of a failed political status quo.

“We begin a fresh start together as one Kentucky,” Bevin said. “Black, white, rural, urban, Democrat, Republican, independent. People who come from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Male, female. Young and old alike. This is our Kentucky. This is our time. This is our opportunity. Together we will accomplish great things.”

As he did during his successful campaign, Bevin sketched out his priorities for coming months: shut down the Kynect state health exchange; reduce the Medicaid rolls; fight federal regulations; create public charter schools; audit the state’s beleaguered pension plans and reshape the retirement systems to make them sustainable; and simplify the tax code, with the abolition of the inventory tax and what he refers to as “the death tax” on some estates.

Bevin, who on Monday appointed a longtime coal executive as secretary of the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, overseeing the protection of clean water and air, said he wants the world to know that Kentucky is open for business.

We’re going to turn this state into the type of state that not only will people want to come to, but they will want to stay.

Governor Matt Bevin

“We’re going to get rid of the very things that, frankly, send the message to the outside world that we’re not serious about being a business-friendly state,” Bevin said. “We’re going to break those things down. We’re going to turn this state into the type of state that not only will people want to come to, but they will want to stay.”

Kentucky must demand more of itself, Bevin said.

“We’re 46th in per capita income, but I will tell you, Kentucky is better than that,” he said. “We’re 47th in workforce participation, but I’ll tell you, Kentucky is better than that. We have the highest level of unfunded pension liability in America, but Kentucky is better than that.”

Bevin invoked the Golden Rule, asking Kentuckians to treat others as they would wish to be treated. Pick up your own trash and don’t litter the landscape, he said. Be respectful, even to people you disagree with politically. Make yourself useful to your church, your school, your neighborhood.

“While it may seem small, the ripple effects of small things is extraordinary,” Bevin said.

In the crowd sat two legislative leaders whom Bevin will need to transform many of his ideas into reality: House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester.

Stumbo said Bevin did “a good job” outlining his conservative agenda, adding that it’s too early “to draw lines in the sand” on what the House — with a narrow Democratic majority — will accept or reject.

Stumbo agreed with Bevin’s call for auditing the state pension plans, and he did not take issue with abolishing the inventory or death tax. But he criticized eliminating Kynect and curbing expanded Medicaid as short-sighted.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Stumbo said with a smile.

Stivers, who commands a strong GOP majority in the Senate, said he’s “no big fan” of Kynect or expanded Medicaid. Former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, enacted those programs through executive order without legislative approval, so Bevin can undo them with his own executive order, Stivers said.

Regarding health care, Bevin invited Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a fellow Republican, to sit beside him for Tuesday’s inauguration. Bevin said he admires what Pence has done in Indiana with the Affordable Care Act, securing waivers from the federal government that allow the state to impose some costs and restrictions on Medicaid recipients.

“This is a model we are going to copy,” Bevin said. “I am not above copying what other people are doing well. And there are great things being done on how to take care of those on Medicaid in the state of Indiana. We can learn from them.”

In 2016, Kentucky will transfer people from Kynect onto the federal health exchange, then “shut that redundant program down,” Bevin added. Much of the crowd applauded that line, but Beshear, sitting behind him, grimaced.

This is one of just seven states where there is no competition — absolutely no competition — for public school dollars. That is going to end.

Gov. Matt Bevin

Bevin said he also will deliver on “school choice.” He said he will propose publicly-operated, publicly-funded charter schools without “the bureaucracy that comes from the suffocation of the regulations and things that are detrimental to actually creating the educational environment that we want.”

“This is one of just seven states where there is no competition — absolutely no competition — for public school dollars,” he said. “That is going to end. We are not doing as well as we could be. …Competition is good. It is healthy. Iron sharpens iron.”

Kentucky wants to be greater than it is, Bevin concluded.

Looking at the election returns last month, Bevin said, where he won 106 of the state state’s 120 counties, “we could interpret that a whole lot of ways. We could feel good about that. We could feel extra special about ourselves, as if somehow we had the right message.”

“But I’ll tell you what I see when I see that electoral map. I see a cry for help. That’s what I see,” he said. “And I want you to know that I hear that cry for help from every corner of this great commonwealth.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

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