By John David Dyche
Kentucky’s political press is doing its job of reporting on the administration of new governor Matt Bevin. So far none of the negative stories have really stuck the way they did against the last Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, a dozen years ago.
A few people Bevin appointed to high-ranking positions in his administration had some performance or ethics issues in their backgrounds, and one has resigned. The many good reviews of the rest of Bevin’s appointments overwhelmed these evidently rare exceptions.
One newspaper printed a letter suggesting that Bevin’s actions in an inherited lawsuit about the University of Louisville Board of Trustees amounted to an embrace of potentially unconstitutional race quotas. Bevin’s message actually appears to be that he will both follow laws that are presumed constitutional until declared otherwise and pursue diversity with more passion than did his Democratic predecessor, Steve Beshear.
Is there an element of politics in Bevin’s effort to replace some trustees Beshear appointed? Probably, but his actions are not so brazenly political as to outweigh their legitimate non-political purposes.
Next came reports that Bevin traveled to New Hampshire for a political event shortly after having declared a state of emergency in Kentucky due to the snowstorm. There were criticisms of tweets from Bevin’s Twitter account that may have made it look like he was still in the state when he was actually gone.
But nothing bad happened as a result of Bevin’s brief absence, and many Kentuckians were too busy dealing with the storm’s aftermath to be concerned about politics. Bevin also said there was an economic development aspect to his trip.
Then came some stories and columns about how austere Bevin’s budget proposal would be. The rumor that the governor might cut-off funding for the Kentucky Arts Council caused concern, especially among urban elites.
During the campaign Bevin kept all his options open as far as the budget was concerned. Nobody should be surprised if his budget pinches pennies especially since Bevin inherits huge pension liabilities and expanded Medicaid obligations for which he can blame Beshear.
To the extent that the Bevin administration has responded to these media items at all it has done so in a calm, measured, and reasonable manner. That should be reassuring to those who remember some more splenetic reactions to media from candidate Bevin.
It also shows that this Republican administration may have learned some valuable lessons from the bumpy early months of the last one. Having experienced Frankfort hands on board is an advantage Bevin enjoys that Fletcher did not since the last GOP administration before his had left town in 1971.
The real test will come in the days after Bevin’s budget speech. The press will pick it apart and put emphasis on the interest groups most aggrieved.
Whatever the extent of any cuts or the minuscule amounts of any increases, and no matter how loudly those affected howl, Bevin can take some comfort that many Kentuckians appear content with a relatively restrained and frugal state government.
With the exception of expanded Medicaid, the cost of which has thus far been paid by the federal government, Beshear’s two terms were characterized by budget austerity. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he remained pretty popular over his entire eight years as governor.
Despite low voter turnout, Bevin’s landslide election victory can also be viewed as a popular mandate for keeping Frankfort on a tight rein. After all, Bevin did not promise any big new spending and spoke often about how we must live within our means.
There are some Democrats in the state legislature who, like the big city newspapers, would like to see higher taxes and more state spending. Such proposals will go nowhere, of course, particularly as the party tries to hang on to its shrinking majority in the state House of Representatives.
Republicans like to talk about tax reform, but have no plan on the table now. It is difficult to see how any plan ever passes even if the GOP takes control of the House.
Even if there are corresponding decreases or repeals, any kind of tax reform raises some taxes and/or imposes some new ones. Yet Republicans become so averse to anything that could in any way be characterized as a tax increase one can scarcely imagine an acceptable reform.
Meanwhile, Bevin promises economic growth which should produce more revenue. Even if he reforms Medicaid, however, it is entirely possible that exploding entitlement and Medicaid will continue to consume much of any new monies.
So austerity in the rest of state government may be here to stay for the foreseeable future. Bevin will have plenty more practice in staying mellow as media reports prick him in ways that could produce a newsworthy response.
(John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jddyche.)
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