Gov. Steve Beshear urged state lawmakers Tuesday night to tackle tax reform and expanded gambling to raise new revenue for such priority areas as education and health care. “We need more resources to make needed investments in our future,” Beshear told a joint session of the General Assembly in his seventh State of the Commonwealth address. “... We need to take bold, decisive action to build a healthier, more educated and better-trained population.”
The message was similar to the one he had for lawmakers a year ago — when he and the General Assembly agreed on pension reform but took no significant step on tax reform. But Beshear’s tone was different this year — emphasizing not the bleak state revenue outlook but the cooperation that made last year’s session a success.
And he pleaded with lawmakers to carry on with a bipartisan outlook. “In Washington, you find leaders focused on keeping power, not helping people,” Beshear said. “... My friends, we must resolve not to let that happen here in Kentucky.”
But Beshear’s speech on the opening day of the 2014 session came after leaders of the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House filed bills some consider to be partisan priorities.
Moreover, some advocates for tax reform have complained that Beshear did not press that priority during the past year. And this year will be his fourth try at passing a measure to legalize expanded gambling.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he appreciated the tone of Beshear’s speech but needed more specifics.
“We have an interest in seeing a competitive tax code that is business friendly and expands the base. Again, we’re looking for the details,” Stivers said.
He added that he did not know the outlook for a gambling amendment.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, noted that Stivers had not declared a gambling amendment “dead on arrival” as former Senate President David Williams once did. Stumbo said he believes there is “a way forward” on the issue.
Beshear spoke for 49 minutes and was interrupted by applause about 40 times.
He made the case that he and the General Assembly had managed to make some progress in the past six years in education and health care despite being forced to make repeated budget cuts.
“But in balancing our budgets during the recession, we were sometimes forced to cut far too deeply, decimating many programs and services that Kentuckians desperately need,” Beshear said. “We cannot continue making progress by paying teachers less than they deserve, by ignoring needs like textbooks and technology, by delaying research into innovative energy production, by pricing college out of reach.”
Beshear said he will propose a specific tax reform plan this month. He gave few clues as to what it might include, though he did say part of it will be an endorsement of the local-option sales tax — a priority of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
“We need to revamp laws governing what and how we tax in order to improve our economic competitiveness, to reduce assessments that create an unlevel playing field for existing Kentucky businesses, and to treat our working families more fairly,” the governor said.
On Jan. 21, he may provide more details when he delivers his budget address. And Beshear said if lawmakers shun tax reform, the 2014-16 budget he will propose that day will still include some restoration of past cuts.
“I am determined to find money to reinvest in education ... even if I have to make harmful cuts in other areas to do so,” Beshear said.
He also said he will ask legislators “to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot related to expanded gaming. There’s no reason to deny the people of Kentucky an opportunity to vote — up or down — on this issue.”
Beshear said Kentuckians want to vote on the amendment, “and we should let them decide whether to continue allowing Kentucky tax money to flow across our borders or to keep it here at home.“
He also spoke about health care, saying “Kentucky ranks among the worst, if not the worst, in every major health category from smoking to cancer deaths, preventable hospitalizations, cardiovascular and cardiac heart disease and diabetes.”
He said those rankings are “why I seized the historic opportunity created by the federal government to address Kentucky’s poor health in a transformative way. We expanded Medicaid and, to link Kentuckians to private insurance, created a state-based health benefits exchange.”
Beshear said he also will push a statewide “smoke-free” law and a measure to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. And he said in the next few weeks he will “unveil a new initiative that will intensify our efforts,” including goals and strategies to cut Kentucky’s smoking rate 10 percent by 2018.