Steve Beshear Sees a Bridge Over the Political Divide

Former governor talks about issues, partisanship, and his book, “People Over Politics”

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Former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear sees sunshine through the gloom of today’s partisanship. He supports that optimism by citing this summer of broad citizen activism on health care that led to last month’s defeat in the Senate of proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“You had some folks on the hot seat and they were wriggling and squirming, and it really surprised them,” Beshear said this month in an interview with Forward Kentucky. “I hope we see more of that, on both sides. This country will be better off if our people become more active like that, and are willing to come and hold their elected representatives accountable.”

Our politics is broken, says the two-term Democratic governor, and he wrote a book about it. Beshear’s been touring the state promoting People Over Politics, and he talked with Forward Kentucky about the value of bipartisanship, education, the Kentucky economy, coal, the state’s pension system, and how Democrats can win more elections.

People over Politics offers a readable narrative of Beshear’s eight years as governor, and argues that his biggest successes came from working with both Democrats and Republicans to focus on improving life in Kentucky. He literally built bridges across the Ohio River by working with Republican Govs. Mitch Daniels in Indiana and John Kasich in Ohio. During his terms that started exactly as the 2007 recession clobbered the world, unemployment in Kentucky fell from a high of 10.9 percent in June of 2009 to 5.3 percent by the time he left office in December 2015, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And he became a national health care spokesman for his implementation of the Affordable Care Act that dropped the uninsured rate in Kentucky from 14.3 percent in 2013 to 6 percent in 2015, according to figures from the U.S Census Bureau.

“We are at a point in our history where good, affordable health care should be available to every American,” said Beshear. With the defeat of the Republican Senate proposals to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, he said, “The obligation of both the Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., is to sit down, and work together, in a bipartisan manner, to try to come to some common agreement about where to go from here.”

Beshear said he sees signs of that happening, with Arizona Sen. John McCain’s decisive vote against his party’s final proposal.

“He doesn’t like the Affordable Care Act,” said Beshear. “But he also thought what the Republicans were pushing was worse. And he has encouraged both the Democrats and Republicans to come together.”

That health care bipartisanship may be starting to happen, said Beshear. He agrees the Affordable Care Act needs to be improved to make premiums more affordable and ease restrictions on small businesses. He credits Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and its ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, for announcing plans “to hold hearings and try to find some common ground about stabilizing the insurance marketplace.”

Beshear called that a “good first step,” adding, “There’s a group of members of congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who are starting to talk about the same thing. The only reason that won’t work is if the leadership in each of those houses, Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, maintain a very partisan position.”

What’s wrong with a health-care waiver

Beshear seemed less hopeful about the immediate future of health insurance coverage in Kentucky, with Gov. Matt Bevin’s request to the federal government for a waiver from the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid requirements. The request Bevin filed a year ago, then revised last month, seeks to control expenses and “to prepare individuals for self-sufficiency and private-market coverage,” according to Bevin’s official request. The waiver would raise costs, eliminate coverage like dental and vision, and add additional requirements for applications and renewals. Estimates put the number of Kentuckians who would no longer be eligible for Medicaid under the waivers at about 90,000.

“My guess is it’ll be approved because the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, I think, has the same view of the Affordable Care Act as the current administration here in Kentucky, and would like to limit it as much as possible,” said Beshear. He said the waiver seems “designed to throw as many people off the program as they can.”

Beshear disputed the Bevin administration’s claims that the waivers are needed to control costs.

“They have yet to provide one iota of facts and figures and information to prove that assertion,” said Beshear. Referring to studies showing that the preventive care encouraged by insurance saves health care costs in the long run, Beshear said the Bevin administration position that Kentucky couldn’t afford the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid coverage “flies in the face of every study that’s been done of the current program.”

Partisanship and the pension system

Beshear also fears partisanship in Bevin’s approach to restoring the massively underfunded state employee pension system—an approach Beshear says should not be used as a tactic to cut the budgets of other programs.

Bevin has called for “fixing Kentucky’s broken pension systems.” Beshear counters that he left office with a long-range, bipartisan repair plan in place.

“The Republicans, the Democrats, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, everybody who’s interested in the issue felt that we had done the right thing and that we were on the right path,” said Beshear. “What has happened today, the current administration has changed the numbers. They played with the assumptions so that it would look worse than it did when we addressed the problem.”

“It’s a complicated issue,” said Beshear. “When you’ve got an issue that complex it’s very easy to scare people with big numbers … scaring state employees like that is unforgivable.”

“Nobody is ever going to miss a check,” said Beshear. “The current retirees are going to continue to be paid, and the folks in the system now, when they retire, there will be money to pay them.”

Beshear said the state pension’s “unfunded liabilities” were years in the making and could take as much as 20 years to resolve. A special session of the legislature has been promised for later this year to address the twin issues of tax reform and the pension shortfall. Beshear says legislators should not resolve those issues by cutting programs that help Kentuckians.

“The sky is not falling,” Beshear said. “This so-called pension crisis shouldn’t be used as an excuse to pull money out of other essential areas that Kentuckians need like better K-12 education, better higher education, better job training, and health care.”

A future for coal communities

One chapter in “People Over Politics” stands out for the rare case of self-criticism by a politician, when Beshear writes that he regrets oversimplifying the decline in Kentucky coal mining by using his 2011 State of the Commonwealth speech to thunder to the Federal Government’s environmental regulators to “get off our backs.”

Beshear writes in that chapter that while he doesn’t back down from his support of the coal industry, he regrets the soundbite “because it helped further the deceptive message to the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields that the best way to build a vibrant future was to simply cling to the past.”

In his interview Beshear said, “The energy economy is changing and we have to adapt as best we can to that change. I don’t think there’s any question that global warming is a reality and that man contributes to that by carbon emissions, from our cars, from our energy plants, from lots of different things, and that we need to pay attention to that issue.”

Beshear said he tried but failed to convince the Obama administration to “take a balanced approach when it came to Environmental Protection Agency regulations by understanding that there are thousands of families whose very livelihood depends upon the coal industry.”

Beshear also cited his efforts to persuade utilities to keep coal as an option for generating electricity, but that it was a tough sell when natural gas offered a cheap and abundant alternative.

In August 2015 then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, displayed his bipartisan approach to governing when he joined Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers In Hazard, Ky., to announce KentuckyWired, a project to bring high-speed internet access to all parts of Kentucky, beginning with eastern Kentucky communities struggling against the decline of the coal industry.

Two years ago, in 2015, I watched an example of that Steve Beshear-style of bipartisanship on display in the mountains of eastern Kentucky coal country. I drove the three hours from my home in Louisville to Hazard Community College so I could write a story about a plan to improve the economy for the area’s communities hit hard by the declining coal industry.

The story actually started two years before that, when in 2013 Beshear teamed with Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers to look for ways to diversify the region’s coal-based economy. The result was an organization called SOAR—Shaping Our Appalachian Region. SOAR quickly concluded that any modern economy needed better access to high-speed internet than you could find in most of eastern Kentucky. By August of 2015 a plan was in place and Beshear and Rogers were in Hazard for the ceremonial launch of KentuckyWired—a public-private partnership to bring broadband access to eastern Kentucky, and eventually the whole state.

“I have my blue tie on, Congressman Rogers has on his red tie, but we’re Kentuckians first,” Beshear said at that news conference. “The partisan world ought to take a lesson in what we’re doing here in Kentucky.”

That bi-partisan problem-solving approach is one that Democrats should pay attention to today, said Beshear in his interview with Forward Kentucky this month.

Advice for Democrats

“It’s time for us to get back to the basics,” he advised Democrats. “We have allowed ourselves to get into so much identity politics and talk to groups as opposed to talking to the general public, and we’re missing the boat.”

Beshear said, “The Democratic Party has always been a big-tent party. It includes people that believe a lot of different things on a lot of different issues. But the place where we find our common ground for the most part is on creating good jobs and opportunity for people, providing good public education to do that and providing health care and public safety. It’s time for us to get back to communicating to our people in ways that they understand that we care about them and this is what we’re going to help them to do to give them a better life.”

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Paul Wesslund
Paul Wesslund retired in 2015 after 20 years as editor of Kentucky Living magazine, and is now a freelance writer focusing on energy issues, doing business as Highway 61 Communications, LLC.