Republican Gov. Matt Bevin offered an election-year sweetener to Kentucky's coal-county leaders on Friday, saying he'll push to return 100% of coal severance tax revenues to their counties if he gets the chance to submit another budget proposal to lawmakers.
His Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, noted that Bevin waited until months before the election to make the overture to coal-producing counties in eastern and western Kentucky.
At the same gathering of county leaders, Beshear on Friday called on Bevin to fire his labor secretary if subpoenas issued as part of an investigation into teacher "sickouts" aren't withdrawn.
The event in Lexington turned into an early encounter between the bitter rivals in what's looming as a brutal general election campaign for governor in the bluegrass state.
Bevin told the group that his next budget proposal, if he wins reelection, will call for the return of 100% of coal severance tax revenue to coal-producing counties. The governor, whoever that is, will submit a two-year state budget plan to lawmakers in early 2020.
"The sad reality, that's a small percentage of what it once historically was, but it makes a big difference in your communities," Bevin said.
Severance tax revenues have dropped amid a decline in coal production in recent years.
Coal severance revenues have been split evenly between the state General Fund and coal counties. A policy change to funnel all severance tax money to coal counties would cost the General Fund about $30 million in revenue each year, a Bevin spokeswoman said.
"It's a lot of money, but it will mean a lot more to those counties than it will to the General Assembly," Bevin told reporters. "We'll find a way to make it whole on other fronts."
Beshear accused Bevin of "promising to take actions he has refused to take for the past four years." Beshear said in a statement that coal communities deserve severance tax dollars but need more — better-paying jobs and affordable health care.
In his speech, the Democratic challenger aggressively hit back at Bevin's efforts to take credit for the state's job growth and low unemployment rate.
"In far too many of our counties, the storefronts are still boarded up and there are too many factories that sit empty," Beshear said.
Beshear played up Bevin's feud with some education groups in calling on the governor to fire his labor secretary if the teacher sickout-related subpoenas aren't withdrawn.
Beshear, as the state's attorney general, has challenged the subpoenas in a lawsuit that was sent back to a state court by a federal judge on Thursday. The subpoenas sent to a number of school districts sought the names of teachers who might have used sick days to attend statehouse rallies earlier this year, forcing some districts to cancel classes.
"This governor has shown he's willing to fire members of his administration, even if they work for someone else in his administration," Beshear said.
It was a reference to a lingering dispute over the firing of Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton's top two aides by Bevin's administration. Bevin has praised Hampton's job performance but dropped her from his ticket early this year. The staffing dispute prompted Hampton to send a tweet asking for prayers in her fight against unspecified "dark forces."
Meanwhile, Bevin and Beshear stuck to some of their main themes in their speeches to the influential group of county leaders from across Kentucky.
The socially conservative Republican governor stressed his opposition to abortion and played up his friendship with President Donald Trump.
Beshear touted the state's expanded Medicaid program, called for expanded gambling as a revenue source to support public pensions and spoke out against charter schools.