This column originally appeared in the December 2, 2015 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By Scott Jennings
There’s a great scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur encounters the obstinate Black Knight, who will not let the monarch cross a bridge. During their fight, King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arms.
“You’ve got no arms left!” Arthur declares.
“Just a flesh wound,” the Black Knight retorts, kicking wildly at Arthur. “I’m invincible!” he finally screams, relentlessly ignoring his pitiful vulnerability.
It is a shame that Monty Python isn’t around to adapt the press release entitled: “Governor Steve Beshear’s Legacy: A Kentucky Stronger At Its Core” into its next screenplay. Truly, the main character’s haughty proclamations would make the Black Knight look like a sober realist.
Let’s start with Kentucky’s massive pension problems, which worsened significantly under Beshear. The word “pension” appears in Beshear’s legacy release under the heading “Budget Turnaround,” which is like describing an airplane crash in a paragraph entitled “Successfully Brought Metal Tube Back to Earth.”
Gov.-elect Matt Bevin has sounded the alarm appropriately on the state’s pension system, ranked among the nation’s worst-funded, according to a Bloomberg report. In 2008, Beshear’s first year as governor, the pension system was 52 percent funded; today it sits at 19 percent. If you are but moderately proficient at math you know this is not a “budget turnaround” as Beshear claims.
Beshear’s pension handoff to Bevin is the worst financial problem any governor of Kentucky has ever left a successor. Ignoring Republican calls for drastic pension reform put the state at risk for bankruptcy, destroyed its credit rating, and leaves virtually no discretionary funding for education and social services. That is Beshear’s true legacy.
Bevin’s plan to implement a 401k-style system for new state workers is similar to what you find in the private sector and will create the fiscal discipline necessary to close the tens of billions in unfunded liabilities. Beshear should have embraced this common-sense solution when the Kentucky Senate—in an effort led by David Williams and Damon Thayer—passed it with bipartisan support in 2011.
Like most good Republican ideas in Frankfort, Beshear and Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo killed it, burying their heads for the sake of political expediency. Bevin is smart to propose changes beyond what the legislature passed in 2013, and he is right when he says the problem will take “a generation at least” to fix. Beshear campaigned on implementing good ideas no matter their party of origin; fulfilling that promise would have saved the state billions, along with its credit rating.
Another ticking time bomb left in Bevin’s desk by Beshear, has to do with the 51,000 Kentuckians who obtained insurance through the now-defunct Kentucky Health Cooperative, the government-subsidized insurance carrier created under Obamacare. These people are among the sickest—and most expensive—insurance customers in the state.
The remaining private insurance companies left in the exchange will take on these expensive customers, forcing them to ask for further rate increases next year. Beshear will be safely retired to his horse farm when that happens, leaving Bevin to muck the health care stalls he left behind. The few remaining Frankfort Democrats will cynically and falsely claim that Bevin’s policies are driving up insurance rates.
The truth is that Beshear — who never faced the voters after unilaterally implementing Obamacare through executive order — is the real culprit. Obamacare and its supporters are responsible for massive rate hikes already, and it is about to get worse.
Beshear rides out of office as more of his punch bowl unpleasantries come to light. WDRB-TV reports that Beshear’s claim of 12,000 new jobs because of expanded Medicaid “hasn’t materialized.” The report says that “3,000 jobs were supposed to be added at hospitals alone in 2014…But instead, hospital employment in Kentucky declined by 2,660 jobs.”
Beshear says he’s leaving the state with a $242 million surplus; one Frankfort insider laughed at that and said: “They’ve put off paying every bill they can. That surplus is spent and then some. This next budget is going to be brutal.” Another tells me to prepare for a shortfall between $500 million and $800 million.
Finally, there are rumors Beshear plans to sign an onslaught of state contracts for major Democratic donors in his final days. The word is that Bevin’s team asked for information on these contracts and was told, in short, to pound sand. Transparency and good governance, thy name is not Beshear.
It is fitting that Beshear, forever linked to Obama, is exiting this way. Obama, like Beshear, will also be remembered for telling us things that just aren’t true. ISIS is not a “JV team,” nor is it “contained.” Americans, as it turns out, were not allowed to keep their health care plans if they liked them. These guys have produced enough bologna to put Oscar Mayer to shame.
Kentuckians have been fed a tremendous amount of bunk over the past eight years about our supposed solid state of affairs. A new Republican governor is left to tell us the truth – that state government is afflicted with far more than simple flesh wounds. Kentucky’s arms are, in fact, off.
Scott Jennings is a former adviser to President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. His column appears in the Courier-Journal every third Wednesday.