Bevin strikes chords of faith, anti-abortion in speech

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's Republican governor struck a somber but hopeful tone during his annual State of the Commonwealth address on Thursday, using his statewide televised speech more as a review of GOP accomplishments in an election year rather than an agenda-setting outlook for the assembled lawmakers.

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Gov. Matt Bevin spoke softly as giant screens displayed photos of Bailey Holt and Preston Cope, two 15-year-old high schoolers who were killed in a mass shooting at Marshall County High School last year. He recalled how he wept during the funeral last week of a 10-year-old boy in Louisville who killed himself because of bullying. And he displayed photos of nearly a dozen state and local police officers who were killed in the line of duty.

"What can we do about it? What is our responsibility," Bevin asked.

His answer was to urge everyone to "read the sacred scriptures and the sacred texts that have motivated you," saying: "I don't know of any that would not encourage us to become better versions of ourselves."

"We owe this to each other. We don't have to agree on everything. We sure don't do it politically. We don't do it in any number of fronts, we're not going to do it necessarily in our faith or in our ideology," Bevin said. "But we can sure extend our love to one another."

It was Bevin's fourth speech to a joint session of the Kentucky state legislature, and his first while as a candidate for governor. Kentucky is one of three states that will elect governors in 2019, and Bevin formally launched his re-election campaign last month.

Much of Bevin's speech appeared to be an effort to restore strained relationships with the state's Republican leaders, people he will need to help him as he is on the ballot for re-election in 2019. His staff handed out fliers to lawmakers lauding their conservative accomplishments. And Bevin praised the legislature for changing the state's tax code and increasing public education spending — both things Bevin vetoed.

After the speech, GOP leaders stuck by Bevin.

"It is an accomplishment of the process," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said. "The process of legislation starting and ending, being vetoed and overridden, is all part of the process. And anyone can take credit for what the process produces."

Bevin took credit for the state's economy, saying Kentucky has had more than $17 billion of private investment and "seen 49,870 new jobs created." Those statistics were tempered this week with news that a battery company backed out of plans to hire more than 800 people for a facility in eastern Kentucky, a region that has been devastated by the loss of coal jobs.

"I would question some of his numbers and some of the things he said," said House Democratic Leader Rocky Adkins, who represents eastern Kentucky and is running for governor this year. "There are certain parts of this commonwealth where we are seeing the depopulation of our commonwealth because of lack of jobs and because of lack of economic opportunity."

Bevin received his strongest applause when he urged the Republican-dominated legislature to continue to pass anti-abortion legislation. Since Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2017, they have passed bills banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requiring women to have an ultrasound before going through with the procedure. This year, lawmakers plan to pass a bill that would make abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected — a bill GOP leaders hope could lead to a legal challenge that would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

"At the end of the day we will prevail because we stand on the side of right and we stand on the side of life," Bevin said.

Democratic Attorney General Andy Besehar stayed seated as most of the rest of the chamber stood and applauded Bevin's words. Beshear, who is running for governor this year, sent a letter to lawmakers last week telling them the fetal heartbeat bill is unconstitutional and could cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

"Every single elected official in this room, including the governor, took an oath to support the Constitution," Beshear said. "The Constitution provides a choice that I believe is between a woman and her doctor for at least the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and I'm going to enforce that constitutional right."