While Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear has long brought attention to health care, education and rebuilding after natural disasters, he put human faces to those issues in the first State of the Commonwealth address of his second term Wednesday night.
In his speech to a joint-session of the Republican-controlled Kentucky House and Senate, Beshear reiterated many of his recent budget proposals while introducing more than a dozen Kentuckians and using their stories to illustrate the need for his proposed spending. They included community leaders who helped build new homes in Eastern and Western Kentucky after devastating floods and tornadoes, public school teachers, and the wife and daughter of a Prestonsburg police officer who died in a 2022 shootout.
Beshear, who won reelection in November, echoed much of what he said on the campaign trail and his second inaugural speech, which had the theme of “Forward, Together.” He encouraged bipartisanship and disavowed rhetoric aimed at sowing division. However, it’s unclear which, if any, of his proposals the General Assembly will adopt in its budget legislation.
Two of the guests Beshear recognized are teachers in the Muhlenberg County public schools, Matthew and Jamie Oates. The governor met Matthew while he was volunteering with the cleanup efforts to haul away debris after the tornadoes. “To support themselves and their two kids, Matthew and Jamie Oates are both working two jobs. Our public school employees deserve better than that,” Beshear said.
Beshear challenged lawmakers to help Kentucky lead morally and economically. “To me, improving life right here at home is the most important focus we can have. And these next four years are our chance – Kentucky’s chance – to be the difference, to be both an economic and a moral leader in this country,” Beshear said.
“This is our time to push away the division; to prove we can govern without name-calling or scapegoating; to do it without anger, without fear or without hatred. That we not only talk about our collective faith, but we can live it.”
Beshear previously unveiled his $136.6 billion spending plan in a televised address last month. On Wednesday, Beshear repeated some of his budget requests, including an 11% raise for public school employees, fully funding student transportation, adding $75 million to the Eastern Kentucky SAFE Fund to continue rebuilding efforts as well as adding another $10 million from the General Fund to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, fully funding expanded Medicaid and a pay increase for state troopers.
The Kentucky General Assembly decides the state budget every two years. Typically, the sitting governor gives an in-person budget address along with the State of the Commonwealth address to a joint-session of the legislature.
Beshear ended his remarks by giving a nod to several recent pieces of bipartisan legislation, including legalizing medical marijuana and sports betting in Kentucky.
“Those who are here know that passing each of these measures took both Republicans and Democrats. It took us moving forward together,” Beshear said. “With this new year comes new opportunities for progress, to build that better, brighter Kentucky. That is what our children deserve.”
What Republicans said
On Wednesday afternoon, ahead of Beshear’s address, Republican House Speaker David Osborne and Senate President Robert Stivers spoke with reporters about what’s ahead in the legislative session.
“We saw the highlights of it. So without knowing the details, it’s very difficult to understand exactly what those things are,” Osborne said of Beshear’s proposals made public in his budget address last month.
Osborne said he and Stivers have had discussions with the governor about some of his proposals but that there was nothing he wanted to hear specifically from Beshear Wednesday night.
As for raises for teachers, which is something both Beshear and his Republican opponent, former Attorney General Daniel Cameron called for in their campaigns last year, Osborne said Kentuckians will “continue to see us make education a priority” in the next budget. He added that mandating raises for specific employees “are decisions best made at the local level.” In the previous budget, the General Assembly passed additional funding to school districts to allocate to employees themselves.
Osborne said there isn’t “much appetite” in his chamber for funding universal Pre-K, another signature Beshear proposal. Stivers added most of the Senate feels the same way.
When discussing universal Pre-K, Beshear pointed to where he saw an “appetite” for such programming — “34,000 sets of parents a year and thousands more that can’t find childcare.”
Osborne said priorities in the House this session include the budget, for which legislation will likely be filed within the next couple of weeks, as well as an omnibus anti-crime bill from Louisville GOP lawmakers and access to health care.
Stivers said the Senate will likely focus on higher education, especially after a recent Council on Postsecondary Education study on Kentucky’s current system, and energy. The budget must originate in the House because of constitutional requirements.
After the governor spoke, Osborne and Stivers were interviewed on KET. The speaker said they were unable to have a press conference after the speech as they did last year because of time constraints.
Also ahead of Beshear’s address, Republican Party of Kentucky spokesperson Sean Southard predicted in a statement that the governor would “claim credit for everything, from beautiful sunrises to bountiful harvests” and said Republican leadership in the General Assembly was responsible for job growth “from policies like right-to-work and tax reform.”