Offering a glimpse into what a second term would look like, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said Wednesday that his top priorities would echo themes he's emphasized since taking office — topped by fixing the state's chronic pension problems.
The Republican governor told a gathering of county officials he wants to shore up public pensions, modernize the state tax code, improve adoption and foster care systems and repair roads and bridges.
Suggesting how aggressive he plans to be if he's reelected Nov. 5, Bevin said county officials should encourage their state lawmakers to display the "intestinal fortitude" needed to tackle difficult issues.
"If you think they've been tested in the first four years, give me four more years," the governor said. "It's just a fact. We've got to make hard decisions. We have to fix the pension problem. We've got to address our road and infrastructure problem. We've got to modernize our tax code. These will be hard to do."
The county leaders from across Kentucky gave Bevin a warm reception. He's locked in a tough campaign against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Beshear was invited to join Bevin at the conference in Louisville but instead campaigned in northern Kentucky.
Elsewhere in the state's largest city, Bevin opponents gathered Wednesday for the latest in a series of statewide rallies calling attention to the governor's feud with teachers.
"We work around the clock bettering our commonwealth, and the last thing we need is a governor who disparages and disrespects us," said Maddie Shepard, a Louisville public school teacher.
The acrimony between Bevin and education groups stems from the governor's support for a 2018 measure changing the public pension systems. Those watered-down changes included moving new teacher hires into a hybrid plan, restricting how teachers can use sick days to calculate retirement benefits and changing how the state pays off its pension debt. The measure won approval from the GOP-dominated legislature but was struck down by the Kentucky Supreme Court on procedural grounds.
Bevin on Wednesday defended the pension measure and lambasted the court ruling. He said the law was invalidated by "a remarkably off-target Supreme Court, because they were fearful for their own political survival. Pathetic. Pathetic. An absolute abdication of their responsibility."
The effort to revamp the state's pension systems — among the worst funded in the country — drew protests from thousands of teachers who rallied at the statehouse.
Bevin said Wednesday that the invalidated law "was the best thing that ever happened for any chance that those people who are demanding their pensions be there" when they retire.
The governor's remark drew a rapid-fire response from Beshear's running mate, educator Jacqueline Coleman. She tweeted: "Matt Bevin and I have very different perspectives on 'the best thing ever.' He thinks the best thing ever is illegal cuts to our hard-earned pensions. I think it's keeping our promises to teachers and first responders."
Bevin also said structural changes affecting future employees are needed to preserve the pension systems.
"It is not mathematically or financially or actuarially possible for us to promise future employees the same thing that current and past employees have gotten if any of them expect to get it," he said.
Beshear, meanwhile, touts legalizing casino gambling to help pay down the state's unfunded pension liabilities. He estimates casinos would generate more than $500 million in yearly tax revenue. Bevin refers to casino gambling as "fool's gold."
Meanwhile, Bevin offered some of his philosophical views of a tax code modernization that he said is needed to make Kentucky more competitive.
"Stop taxing the job creators and the wealth producers," he told the county officials. "Let them keep the money, deploy it and we'll tax it then. That's how it gets done. Let them build things with that money, then indeed we'll tax it and your school districts will benefit from that."
Bevin said the state also needs a massive infrastructure plan to build roads and bridges and to repair existing ones.
He acknowledged the political difficulty of financing the upgrades, saying: "We are going to have to pay for this somehow. And we need to have an honest conversation about how to do it."