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Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear calls for unity in GOP-leaning Kentucky to uplift economy, education

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear speaks to a joint session of the legislature to deliver his State of The Commonwealth address in the House chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Timothy D. Easley/AP
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Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear speaks to a joint session of the legislature to deliver his State of The Commonwealth address in the House chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear reached across the partisan divide Wednesday night to urge a unified effort with Republican lawmakers to uplift education, health care and the economy, saying Kentucky has an opportunity to assert itself as an “economic and a moral leader.”

Beshear, who raised his national profile by winning reelection last year in the GOP-leaning state, renewed his pitch for higher salaries for teachers, state-backed pre-K education for every 4-year-old, increased funding for roads and bridges and efforts to meet the state's health needs.

Touting a record pace of economic development, the governor said Kentucky has an unprecedented opportunity to build a top 10 economy offering the security of good-paying jobs. Noting that he's now term-limited, the governor said it's a chance to set politics aside. It's an acknowledgement that he needs support from GOP legislative supermajorities to pass his priorities.

“This is our chance to push away the division,” Beshear said in his annual State of the Commonwealth speech. “To prove that we can govern without name-calling or scapegoating. To do it without anger, without fear and without hatred. That we can not only talk about our collective faith, we can live it.”

Beshear had frequent policy clashes with Republican lawmakers during his first term, and prospects are uncertain for there to be less friction in the legislative session that just convened this week.

The governor called for a renewal of the unity that prevailed in the response to deadly tornadoes that hit western Kentucky in late 2021, followed by massive flooding that swamped eastern parts of the state in the summer of 2022.

“How we dealt with these historic challenges wasn't red or blue,” Beshear said. “It wasn't ‘R’ or ‘D.’ It was just us, Team Kentucky, where everybody matters.”

The governor focused on his immediate priorities in the current legislative session but also took a longer view at the start of his second term.

“Improving life right here at home is the most important focus we can have,” Beshear said. “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.”

The governor outlined his wish list for the next two-year state budget in a televised speech last month. He reiterated those priorities Wednesday night, calling for an 11% pay raise for teachers and all other public school employees and the funding for pre-K.

Beshear called it unacceptable that Kentucky ranks 44th nationally in average starting teacher pay and 40th in average teacher pay. The governor has previously said the pay increase would lift Kentucky to the middle of the pack nationally in both categories.

In pitching his pre-K initiative, he said: “We are rightfully concerned about learning loss. So we should address it where it begins.”

Beshear's pre-K proposal made no headway with lawmakers in the past, and top Republicans signaled again Wednesday that such resistance appears unchanged.

“I don’t think there’s much appetite in our chamber for it,” House Speaker David Osborne said.

The governor also made another pitch for child care assistance, with funding to help cushion child care programs from the loss of pandemic-era federal subsidies, and called for another massive infusion of funding for transportation and clean water projects.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers echoed Osborne’s remarks about the governor's pre-K plan but said in a post-speech interview on Kentucky Educational Television that there’s a “strong desire to look at how we create day care for the working-class people.”

Passing the next budget will be the top priority for lawmakers in this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Osborne said Wednesday that the House budget plan will likely be unveiled in the next week or two.

“I expect it to be built largely like we’ve built the last several budgets, which is to find places that we feel like that we can invest people’s money wisely but also remain very fiscally responsible,” he said.

The governor said a commitment to meet the mental and physical health needs of Kentuckians is an investment not only to improve lives but to bolster the state's workforce.

“We need all of our people healthy enough to be a part of this future and the prosperity it will bring,” he said. “So let's continue to expand access to quality health care for all of our people.”

To bolster law enforcement, Beshear called for increased pay for Kentucky State Police troopers and officers. He proposed an increase in the training stipend for local law enforcement officers and requested $35 million to fund grants for body armor.

Associated Press