Candidates in Kentucky governor’s race preview debates on tax cuts, education, and abortion

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear declared that now is not the time to “sub out the quarterback” when Kentucky has so much momentum, while Republican challenger Daniel Cameron said he's the one who can team up with GOP legislators to tackle the state's nagging problems.

The rivals offered contrasting assessments of how the state is faring during a Wednesday night forum hosted by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. They appeared separately to field questions from a moderator. It was a preview of upcoming debates in one of the nation's most closely watched elections in 2023.

Beshear is seeking a second term while Cameron is trying to reclaim the governorship for the GOP to consolidate its power in Frankfort, where Republicans have legislative supermajorities.

The candidates offered differing views on the appropriate pace for eliminating the state individual income tax and touted competing plans for education and how to boost workforce participation. They also spoke briefly about their shared past as one-time colleagues at a law firm — a brief glimpse of sentimentality in what has become an increasingly hard-hitting campaign.

Cameron, the state's attorney general, focused on crime, the state's comparatively low workforce participation rate and students' learning loss when schools closed during the pandemic.

“Who can you trust to address those?” Cameron said. "Who has the relationships with the legislature to get things done as it relates to solving those problems? I firmly believe that I do.”

Beshear highlighted the state's advances during his term, led by record-setting economic development growth amid an infusion of $27 billion in private-sector investments. He opened his remarks by pointing to the landmark project underway at Glendale — the $5.8 billion project by Ford and its battery partner to build twin battery plants to supply electric vehicles.

“When you are on a historic win streak, you don’t fire the coach," the governor said. "You don’t sub out the quarterback. You keep that team on the field.”

Beshear pointed to the stretch of low statewide unemployment, pay raises for state troopers, a record-low recidivism rate, a booming tourism sector and massive investments to expand broadband. He highlighted three mega-infrastructure projects — building a new Ohio River bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio without tolls, widening and extending the Mountain Parkway and constructing another Ohio River bridge to close a gap in Interstate 69 linking western Kentucky and Indiana.

Beshear pitched his plan for an 11% pay raise for teachers and all public school personnel and for the state to fund pre-K for all 4-year-olds in Kentucky. Cameron touted his own plan to overcome pandemic-related learning loss, including an optional tutoring program for math and reading instruction.

They offered different views on the best pace for eliminating the individual income tax.

Cameron said he would work with lawmakers to get the rate "to zero as quickly as we possibly can.”

“I want people to go to work in the morning and know that they’re not going to be taxed simply because they go to work," Cameron said. "I think that will help drive people into our workforce.”

Beshear cautioned that the income tax phaseout should be done responsibly. Rushing into it would lead either to big sales tax increases or massive cuts to education, public safety and health care, he said. The governor praised the framework put in place by lawmakers.

“Everything in moderation is the way we get where we’re supposed to go, and make sure that we can fund those essentials for our families at the same time,” Beshear said.

The individual income tax rate is set to remain the same in 2025 after the state failed to meet all fiscal requirements for another reduction. The rate is already set to drop at the start of 2024. The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees have said the pause shows the tax-phaseout legislation is working as intended.

Beshear signed the bill lowering the individual income tax rate by a half-percentage point to 4%, effective Jan. 1, 2024. He vetoed last year’s bill starting the phaseout from 5%. Beshear said he objected to provisions that extended the sales tax to many more services. Cameron criticized Beshear for the veto, which Republican lawmakers easily overrode. As an alternative, the governor last year backed an unsuccessful effort to temporarily cut the state sales tax rate.

Amid the acrimony of the campaign, the candidates were asked to say something nice about the other. Both recalled working together as law firm colleagues.

“I was the lawyer that gave him his very first private-sector legal assignment," Beshear said. "And it was good. It helped the case.”

Cameron said he always appreciated that. But he also got in a dig at the governor, referencing a TV ad Beshear's campaign released attacking Cameron for his long-documented support of a strict abortion ban.

“I would have had a lot of nice things to say about him until he ran that ad against me today,” Cameron said.