Matt Bevin and Jack Conway at Tuesday's Kentucky Chamber of Commerce debate

Matt Bevin and Jack Conway at Tuesday’s Kentucky Chamber of Commerce debate

At the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s gubernatorial forum on Tuesday, candidates Matt Bevin and Jack Conway had their first substantial debate on key issues in the race, revealing clear differences on health care and public pensions, though declining to get into specific details on other topics and also taking swipes at each other’s character.

Following the debate, Bevin went a step further in a combative exchange with reporters, denying past statements he’s made on Common Core and Kentucky’s Medicaid expansion, and accusing a local reporter of working for Conway.

During the debate — moderated by former “Pure Politics” host Ryan Alessi — Conway, a Democrat, attempted to portray himself as a fiscal conservative and his Republican opponent as dishonest, while Bevin said Conway was proposing more government spending despite the fact that Kentucky’s budget is depleted and he has offered no way to pay for it.

Health Care

The clearest policy difference between the two candidates is what to do with Kynect — the state’s health insurance exchange — and the expansion of Medicaid to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, both made possible by the Affordable Care Act.

Asked earlier in the campaign if he would end Kentucky’s participation in expanded Medicaid, Bevin answered, “Absolutely. No question about it. I would reverse that immediately.” Conway said he would keep that in place, as roughly 400,000 Kentuckians have gained coverage through this measure.

“What I am not going to do is what my opponent would do on day one of his administration, and that’s by the stroke of a pen, kick nearly a half million people off of health insurance in this state. And he still hasn’t explained what he would replace it with,” said Conway. “To me that’s not something that’s courageous to do, that’s callous.”

Bevin replied by insisting he never said he would do that and would not have the authority to do so. However, Bevin later conceded he would have the authority to lower the income threshold of eligibility and would do just that, saying the state will not be able to afford to cover those who “don’t need” it, including “working-age, able-bodied men and women who do not have the degree of need that we are now providing and cannot afford.”

Bevin also said he would look at following the model of Indiana, which finally agreed to expand Medicaid to over 350,000 Hoosiers, receiving a waiver from the federal government to require those individuals make a small monthly payment based on income.

After the forum, a reporter noted in a question to Bevin that he could sign an executive order repealing Medicaid expansion on his first day, to which Bevin responded, “And create what degree of chaos?” After several reporters told him he had previously said he would do just that, Bevin replied, “I said I would address it. I didn’t say I would end it. Go back and look at what I said.”

On Bevin’s own jobs plan on his website, however, he says twice that Medicaid expansion should be “repealed.”

As for Kynect, Bevin said the exchange where consumers can shop for private plans should be eliminated, calling it redundant and saying those individuals could shop for insurance plans on the federal exchange. Conway argued for keeping Kynect, saying extras fees would be charged on the federal exchange and that local employees are able to provide more consumer support on the state exchange.

Right to Work

Bevin and Conway also starkly disagreed on so-called “right to work” legislation, which would not mandate the paying of union dues for employees who belong to that union. Bevin said that states with such a law have better job growth, while Conway disputed that figure and said workers in those states have lower wages.

Education

The two also disagreed on Common Core standards for education, with Conway saying Kentucky made the right move by voluntarily implementing them and subtly jabbing Bevin over his rhetoric on the matter, saying it “is not a federal takeover of education.”

Bevin countered by saying “I don’t know the people who are saying this is a takeover by the federal government,” then launched into an attack on the standards as being insufficient for Kentucky and not providing enough flexibility for teachers.

After the debate, a reporter noted to Bevin that he once said Common Core “is just another example of unconstitutional government overreach.” Bevin said he stands by that statement, then seconds later added, “I’m not saying it’s unconstitutional.” He went on to say he was referring to the actions and existence of the federal Department of Education as unconstitutional.

Both candidates declined to pledge an effort to fund universal preschool education as governor, saying the state cannot afford this. Conway said he is open to expanding this for families who are eligible for Medicaid, and Bevin accused Conway of backing off his previous proposal to spend a “big” amount of money for this purpose because of his conservative audience.

“Well, now it’s a ‘little big,’ apparently, in front of this group, because this is a group of people who understand you can’t promise things you can’t deliver on,” said Bevin.

The chamber actually supports expanding early childhood education, and Bevin later said he would be open to increasing such funding to failing schools in the greatest need.

On higher education, both candidates declined to take a pledge to return state universities’ budgets back to 2007 levels, though Conway added he will “try to restore some of the funding, because it’s important.” Bevin said he would not pledge to increase funding, as he’s “not going to promise money we don’t have. And anyone who does is lying to you.”

Public Pension

Asked if they would be open to issuing public pension obligation bonds to prop up the significantly underfunded retirement system for state workers and teachers, both agreed this was too risky and would not support it. On whether they support a dedicated funding stream for those pension plans, Conway supported that idea but did not give any specifics on where this would come from or how much, while repeating he is not for any tax increases and wants to cut corporate income taxes. Bevin said he would “be open to any idea that is fiscally sound” and would listen to experts in the field.

Bevin repeated his plan to fix the pension system, which includes auditing all of the plans and moving new hires, state workers and retirees out of their current plan and into their own private 401k-type plan. Asked if that would just remove money going into the plans that are currently badly underfunded, Bevin agreed it would “cost us in the short term,” but help the state in future years.

“Does it seemingly exacerbate the problem? Yes,” said Bevin. “But when you look at what we remove from the liabilities group, we will never address this issue if we are not serious about stopping the bleeding.”

Government Spending and Services

Moderator Alessi noted at one point that though Conway is against raising taxes and revenue, he supports increased funding for early and higher education, a dedicated stream for public pensions, as well as Medicaid expansion in future years once the federal government stops paying 100 percent of the costs, asking “how the heck are you going to pay for it?”

Conway mostly deflected the question, saying federal funds could be used to help with early childhood education, and citing a recent study by a consulting firm that savings from expanded Medicaid would pay for it itself once the state has to kick in 10 percent of the costs.

Throughout the debate, Bevin repeatedly emphasized this point, saying Conway was promising funding for popular programs when he knows very well the state does not have that kind of money available unless it raises taxes and revenue.

“The idea that you can set up a department of this, and spend big on that and remain revenue neutral and not raise taxes is nonsense,” said Bevin. “You can’t deliver all these promises and not raise taxes. So the key is, how do we live within our means?”

One point of agreement in the debate was both candidates’ advocacy for dramatically cutting back on state workers, as well as examining privatizing some government services and selling state-owned property. However, they differed on public-private partnerships for transportation infrastructure projects, with Conway in support and Bevin opposed to P3s for those particular types of projects.

“In the area of transportation, I support P3s; we’re able to get rid of some Transportation employees and be more efficient in that area,” said Conway. “We need that tool in the toolbox to make certain that we have every option at our disposal when we’re trying to get a project done.”

Bevin said he would pursue privatizing state parks — “frankly, our state parks are a little sad, some of them” — which he said would enhance them while saving money. He added there were other areas that could be privatized and property that could be sold, but declined to get into specifics, saying, “When you start naming them, then everybody gets worked up.”

Alessi replied, “But that’s the point of a campaign,” receiving the biggest laugh of the day.

Personal Attacks

The candidates also got snippy with each other at times by launching personal attacks. For example, Conway repeatedly alluded that Bevin was not born and raised in Kentucky, and Bevin finally snapped back: “There’s been a lot of references that I’m not from here — give me a break. I’m not here by genetic happenstance, I’m here by choice as an adult.”

After Conway mentioned that he went to work in state government after college, Bevin asked, “Was that a Duke education?” Conway quickly replied, “At least I tell the truth about where I went to college,” referencing Bevin’s previous false claim to have a degree from MIT on his LinkedIn page, which Sen. Mitch McConnell hammered him on during last year’s Senate race.

And following a few already testy exchanges with media after the debate, Bevin interrupted a question by WAVE3 political reporter Theo Keith by saying, “I’m taking questions from people that are not working for the Conway administration. Other questions?” Another reporter asked the same question that Keith was beginning to ask regarding what state property he would sell, which Bevin declined to answer directly.

Insider Louisville then asked Bevin if any other reporters present that day were employees of Conway, to which he replied: ““I don’t know. That’s a good question. I know there’s at least one.”

Both candidates are set to speak this Saturday at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic, so the combativeness and hostility of the race should only escalate there.