FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Looking to build on his resounding reelection victory, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear took his budget directly to the voters in a televised speech Monday night as he pressed for a massive boost in education funding, child care support and continued investments in infrastructure projects.
The holiday message — coming about two weeks before the state’s Republican-dominated legislature reconvenes — represents the Democratic governor’s effort to turn political capital into more of a mandate for his top policy priorities, especially in public education.
Beshear also proposed pay raises for state workers and increased funding for public universities, economic development and foster care. He proposed hiring more state troopers and social workers, building more juvenile detention centers and investing more in regional airports.
Beshear said the state can afford that and more, without tapping into its vast budget reserves. Tax collections have surged in Kentucky even as its individual income tax rate has been lowered.
“This budget aims to meet our families where they are, to address the concerns they worry most about,” Beshear said in his address, less than a week after he was sworn in for a second term. “Look, Kentuckians don’t wake up every morning thinking about Democrat or Republican, and neither does this budget.”
Public education — including higher teacher pay and access to universal pre-K — ranked atop his wish list, as Beshear presented his blueprint for the state’s next two-year budget in a statewide primetime speech on Kentucky Educational Television.
Beshear’s November reelection win in GOP-leaning Kentucky sets him up to be on the national radar in coming years when the country looks for a new generation of leaders.
The speech’s timing reflected the friction of divided government in the Bluegrass State. Governors traditionally reveal their budget plans in a televised speech when the legislature is in session. This time, the governor opted for a pre-session speech after House Republicans preempted him in early 2022 by unveiling their budget plan before the governor could present his blueprint.
In his latest two-year spending proposal, Beshear called for pumping more than $2.5 billion of additional funding into preschool through high school education. Topping his requests is a proposed 11% pay raise for teachers and all other public school employees — including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and janitors. He also recommended an 11% increase in the minimum teacher salary.
“It’s simple, you cannot give a child every opportunity if they don’t have a teacher in every classroom,” Beshear said. “We won’t have enough bus drivers unless we pay a better wage. And we cannot remain competitive with other states if we don’t pay our teachers and other employees what they’re worth.”
The investments would lift Kentucky to the middle of the pack nationally in average teacher starting pay and average teacher pay. The state now ranks near the bottom in both categories, he said.
Another Beshear priority is providing preschool for every 4-year-old in Kentucky. The governor’s budget plan includes $172 million each year of the two-year budget to accomplish that. His similar proposals previously made no headway with lawmakers.
The program would extend preschool education to an estimated 34,000 additional 4-year-olds, he said.
“This will be an unprecedented investment for Kentucky’s children,” Beshear said. “Imagine the difference it’ll make when every single Kentucky child enters kindergarten prepared to learn.”
The governor’s education plan also would increase per-pupil funding under the state’s main funding formula. It would fully fund teacher pensions and student transportation.
Another key Beshear proposal calls for spending about $141 million over two years for child care assistance, meant in part to help cushion child care programs from the loss of pandemic-era federal subsidies.
Meanwhile, his budget calls for a nearly 8% increase in the base budgets of public universities, which endured state budget cuts for several years.
For the state’s workforce, Beshear proposed awarding a 6% across-the-board pay raise effective next July 1, followed by a 4% raise the next year.
He proposed using $500 million in state funds for water and wastewater projects statewide and $300 million for major transportation projects — with an eye toward widening the Mountain Parkway in eastern Kentucky and building an Ohio River bridge between western Kentucky and Indiana.
To build on the state’s record pace of economic development, the governor proposed allocating another $200 million to help land new employers. Half the amount would go to prepare mega-development projects and the rest would aid county and regional site development.
Beshear proposed building two female-only juvenile detention centers and to retrofit other detention centers.
As with any governor’s proposal, the legislature will have the final say on the budget — the state’s main policy document. The governor can make line-item vetoes to the spending bill, but GOP legislative supermajorities can wield override power.
The state’s next two-year budget period starts next July 1.
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press