PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — In a hard-hitting debate that exposed their mutual rancor, Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic challenger Andy Beshear traded swipes Thursday over casino gambling and support for higher education in the first of several fall debates leading up to next month’s showdown in Kentucky’s election for governor.
Both candidates backed legalizing medical marijuana but parted ways on whether to tax it.
Beshear stressed that no governor should be “blindly loyal” to a president as he took a shot at President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, which Beshear said has hurt Kentucky soybean farmers. Bevin is a strong supporter of Trump, who remains popular in Kentucky and looms as a factor in the Nov. 5 election.
The candidates also took personal digs at each other, sustaining a rivalry that goes back to their court battles when Beshear, as the current state attorney general, sued Bevin over some of his policy and executive decisions.
Their hourlong, televised debate took place in Paducah in western Kentucky, a region that sided with the GOP in recent elections but which Beshear’s family considers home turf. Beshear’s father, former two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, grew up in the region.
Bevin and Andy Beshear broke sharply from one another on whether Kentucky should allow expanded gambling. Beshear touted his plan to legalize casino gambling, which he estimates would reap more than $500 million in yearly revenue. He wants to use the money to support woefully underfunded public pension systems, saying it would free up other revenue for public education. The Democratic challenger said the state is losing that revenue to bordering states as Kentuckians flock to casinos.
“Other states are eating our lunch,” he said.
Bevin referred to casino gambling as “fool’s gold” and said Beshear’s push doesn’t account for societal costs.
The way to increase tax revenue, the governor said, is to boost job creation. He touted his credentials for doing that by noting that he created jobs as a private businessman.
Both candidates expressed support for legalizing medical marijuana, an issue that has stalled in recent legislative sessions. But the governor criticized Beshear for wanting to tax it.
“The idea that we would tax that as a way to make money is cruel and absolutely inappropriate,” Bevin said.
Beshear told reporters afterward that the only way medical marijuana could pass the legislature is if it generated revenue. He said that tax money should go to bolster the state’s floundering pension systems.
Bevin said he was able to fully fund public pension systems without expanded gambling or a tax on medical marijuana.
“We didn’t have to gamble and smoke pot to do it,” Bevin said. “We did it by making hard decisions, and those dollars came from other places.”
In a swipe at Bevin’s unwavering support for Trump, Beshear said no governor should be “blindly loyal to any president, no matter who they are.” Beshear said he would support any president’s policies that benefit Kentucky but would speak up when their decisions hurt the state.
“When they do things that harm us, whether it is the tariff on soybeans or whether it’s attempts to strip away (health insurance) coverage for pre-existing conditions, you ought to have a governor that stands up for Kentucky and if they have to, stands against a federal administration,” he said.
Bevin told reporters afterward that he has talked with Trump and other administration officials about punitive tariffs that China imposed on U.S. soybeans as part of the president’s trade conflict with the Chinese.
Asked if he opposed Trump’s trade policy, Bevin replied: “What I want to see is a fair playing field for our goods in the world and the world’s goods in America. This is what we are trying to accomplish. The president is right now trying to get 21st century trading policy in place.”
Beshear was the aggressor for much of the debate, at one point slamming Bevin for his use of taxpayer-owned aircraft _ comments that the governor called “snarky.” Bevin later criticized Beshear for “suing me non-stop.”
On another topic, Beshear committed himself to restoring state budget cuts to higher education that occurred over the past decade. He was critical of tuition increases, saying higher education has been priced out of reach for many Kentuckians. He also promised increasing support for technical education.
“You can have no better governor than Andy Beshear to stand up for K-through-12 and higher education,” he said.
Bevin replied: “What you didn’t say is ... ‘how are you actually going to pay for this?’”
The governor has repeatedly chided Beshear during the campaign for not saying specifically how he’d fully pay for policy initiatives.
“Would I love to see more money for higher education? Of course I would,” Bevin said at the debate. “Will I make it a priority? To the extent we have the money, of course.”