With just a week left until Election Day in the Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial primary, candidates were grilled Monday on the specifics of the plans they have been touting throughout the state.
Attorney General Andy Beshear and former Auditor Adam Edelen criticized each other, House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins was put on the spot about his role in the pension crisis and all three candidates were left justifying their plans for more revenue in a state with an extremely tight budget.
In an hourlong debate on Kentucky Educational Television, host Renee Shaw asked Adkins, Beshear and Edelen for the specifics. Here’s some of what they had to say:
Edelen has run ads accusing Beshear of getting support from Purdue Pharma during his 2015 Attorney General’s race. The drug company, best known for making the pain-killer OxyContin, has been vilified in Kentucky because of the role prescription pain killers have played in the opioid epidemic.
Edelen’s claim is complicated. Purdue Pharmaceuticals made a $100,000 contribution to the Democratic Attorney General’s Association in 2015. The same day the donation was made, DAGA transferred $250,000 to a group in Kentucky that then purchased ads in support of Beshear.
But when asked about it Monday, Beshear denied Edelen’s claim.
“We haven’t received any of those funds,” Beshear said. “Adam knows that these allegations aren’t true. But why he’s making them is because I have one of the best records for addressing and attacking opioid makers.”
He then proceeded to talk about how he has filed several lawsuits against several pharmaceutical companies.
Edelen wasn’t spared, however. He has run ads saying he won’t accept money from corporate PACs but has received support from a Super PAC financed by Edelen’s business partners and the family of his running mate, Gill Holland.
“I’m not being disingenuous,” Edelen said, “because the truth is not one of the three of us up here hasn’t benefited at some point in our political careers from the involvement of an independent expenditure. I haven’t taken a dime of corporate PAC money, nor will I.”
The candidates have been asked over and over again about Kentucky’s ailing pension system and their answer is basically the same: The system needs more revenue.
But on Monday, Shaw looked for more detail.
Adkins has often said that the reforms passed in 2013 simply need full-funding and time to work. But much of the debate in Frankfort has centered around the Teacher’s Retirement System and the 2013 reforms did little toward addressing that system. Adkins said Monday he doesn’t think there need to be any reforms to TRS.
“Let me tell you if we don’t have a defined benefit on the teachers’ side of this, we’re not going to be able to recruit the quality, the best and the brightest to the classroom,” Adkins said.
It was then pointed out that Adkins was a member of leadership when the legislature didn’t fully fund the pension system.
“I’m one of 137,” Adkins said (there are 138 members of the General Assembly). “The House (was) controlled by the Democrats, the Senate (was) controlled by the Republicans. And as I said all the way into the 2000s, the pension systems were doing very well.”
Edelen and Beshear, meanwhile, traded criticisms of each other’s revenue sources for the pension system.
Edelen has called for comprehensive tax reform, something Beshear called a “platitude without specifics.” Beshear has called for legalized gaming to help fund pensions, a plan Edelen called “irresponsible.”
Adkins also proposed cutting tax loopholes, saying it was the most “realistic” approach to being able to raise revenue in a Republican-controlled legislature.
Funding for higher education
Adkins has proposed a plan that would provide free tuition for people who attend two-year community colleges, based on a bill that passed the General Assembly but was vetoed by Gov. Matt Bevin. Bevin instead used the money allocated to the program to provide full scholarships for specific career paths.
“I want to expand that to the Work Ready Kentucky that we worked on in the 2016 session that the governor vetoed,” Adkins said.
Adkins also railed against performance-based funding, saying it hurt the universities in the rural areas of the state and said the university presidents only signed on to it “with their arm right up in their shoulder blade, with their arm twisted behind their back.”
Beshear said he backed up his call for more funding for universities with his lawsuit against the Bevin administration for cutting funding to universities by 2 percent. Edelen pushed back on that response.
“Lawsuits aren’t going to save the availability of the higher education to the working class,” Edelen said.
“They saved $18 million,” Beshear said.
“You’re a great lawyer, I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Edelen rebutted, before decrying the cuts that have been made to higher education and saying there would need to be tax increases tied to funding specific initiatives. He did not provide detail on what the initiatives are or what the taxes would be.
After a viewer pointed out that the discussion had centered mostly on pensions and education, the conversation pivoted to wages.
Adkins, who has run a campaign on being for working families, was asked what he thought was a living wage.
“$15 or better or even $20 or $25,” Adkins said before adding that he thought it would have to be phased in. “I don’t know where the exact figure is, but let me tell you, there’s a lot of people struggling out there. A lot of people working two jobs a day.”
That gave Edelen the opportunity to criticize the current administration’s economic development policies, saying they were purposefully driving down wages to recruit business to the state.
Edelen claimed that Kentucky’s economy ranked first in states that are at risk of losing the most jobs to automation. A study by the Brookings Institute found Kentucky ranked second, after Indiana, in a list of states deemed most vulnerable to the changing economy.