PADUCAH, Ky. (CN) – The first of five scheduled debates between Kentucky Republican Governor Matt Bevin and Democratic candidate Andy Beshear was held Thursday at the Paducah Chamber of Commerce, and saw the two sparring over education and job creation.
The gubernatorial election is only a month away, and Thursday’s debate focused on business and economics, with questions from a media panel limited to those topics.
Prior to the debate, Andy Beshear spent the first part of this week hammering Bevin for his record on education.
Beshear, Kentucky’s attorney general, spoke at Frankfort High School on Wednesday and said education would be the “highest priority” if he is elected on Nov. 5.
The AG decried the governor’s “war on public education,” and outlined an ambitious plan to overhaul Kentucky’s public schools by reducing class sizes, increasing teacher pay and hiring more minority teachers.
Education was a hot topic at Thursday’s debate, as the Bluegrass State currently sits 38th in the country in education, according to a report by US News.
Beshear lamented “spiraling tuition” at the state’s universities, and said the cost of higher education is holding back many families from achieving their dreams and obtaining a college degree.
Bevin responded to his opponent with incredulity, asking Beshear how he would pay for a decrease in tuition alongside an increase in funding to the universities.
K-12 education was also debated before the audience of more than 530, with an emphasis on the state’s pension system.
The governor has taken credit for balancing the state’s pension system – which includes retirement benefits for teachers and currently includes more than $13.6 billion in unfunded liabilities – and signed House Bill 1 into law in July.
The bill, which was not supported by a single Democrat, drastically increases payments made to the system by universities and other public institutions, including local health departments.
At the debate, Bevin touted the fact he is the only governor “in the history of the state” to put 100% of earnings from the lottery into the education system, and also stressed the importance of student safety.
Beshear called the governor “an existential threat to public education,” and accused him of bullying teachers since the day he was elected.
A potential expansion of casino gambling and sports betting, along with the legalization of medicinal marijuana, were also debated by the candidates.
Currently, betting at horse racing tracks is the only legal form of gambling in the state.
Bevin said he opposes casinos and sports betting, and cited the social cost to families and the communities surrounding casinos.
“These things are not solutions, they are fool’s gold,” he told the audience.
Beshear disagreed, and said the state “desperately needs new, dedicated revenue for our pension system,” and claimed neighboring states with legalized gambling are “eating our lunch.”
Unsurprisingly, the opioid crisis was also mentioned, both in the question regarding marijuana legalization and a separate question about prison population growth.
Bevin said he supports medicinal marijuana, but called Beshear’s plan to tax the drug “cruel.”
Bevin also attacked Beshear’s record of going after drug manufacturers as the state’s AG.
“For all the talk about attacking the opioid crisis,” the governor said, “the man to my immediate left … has been involved in one settlement ever … when he defended Purdue Pharma against the commonwealth of Kentucky.”
The attack was made in reference to Beshear’s former law firm defending Purdue Pharma in a suit against the state. Beshear told the audience the claim was a “conspiracy theory.”
The AG also cited the importance of ensuring drug offenders are kept out of jail and put into treatment.
Beshear spoke repeatedly during the debate about investment in “agritech” as a way of attracting six-figure jobs to the southwestern region of the state, and also pushed his record as AG to the fore, noting that he has refunded more than $98 million to the state from fraudulent Medicaid payments.
Bevin reminded the audience on several occasions that he is the only candidate to create jobs that don’t rely on government funding, and urged voters to choose the candidate who can sit with CEOs and convince them to bring companies to Kentucky.
The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Lexington, and is hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Beshear, the son of former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, earned his law degree from the University of Virginia, and chose educator Jacqueline Coleman as his running mate.
Bevin, elected in 2015, held a six-point lead in a June 2019 poll conducted by Gravis Marketing, although the poll had a +/-3.6 margin of error.
The race is currently listed as a toss-up by The Cook Political Report and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzalez, while Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball gives a slight advantage to the incumbent Bevin.