In Thursday’s gubernatorial debate in Paducah, Gov. Matt Bevin targeted Attorney General Andy Beshear’s history with pharmaceutical companies - particularly Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma - while Beshear questioned his opponent’s economic record.
The face-off, sponsored by the Paducah Chamber of Commerce, largely concerned economic issues. Questions focused on job creation and infrastructure, particularly in Western Kentucky, but the candidates found openings for personal jabs and critical talking points.
The State Journal has analyzed several statements made by each candidate during the hourlong debate to assess context and accuracy.
Beshear: Many Kentuckians are struggling
Early on, Beshear said that Kentucky has the third lowest per capita (per person) income in the nation and that 70 counties had an unemployment increase in the last year.
That ranking is close to accurate, but not quite. In 2017, Kentucky’s per-capita income was $25,888, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This places the Bluegrass at sixth lowest per capita income in the nation. (West Virginia was third with $24,774 income per capita.)
A state news release last week said 75 of Kentucky’s 120 counties had higher unemployment rates in August than they did in August 2018. In that month, the statewide jobless rate was 4.1 percent; this August, it was 4.3 percent, according to the Federal Reserve. The state news release noted these rates “are not seasonally adjusted because of small sample sizes. Employment statistics undergo sharp fluctuations because of seasonal events.”
Bevin: Unemployment has reached a record low in Kentucky
Bevin said unemployment has reached a record low in Kentucky under his administration. This claim is accurate for the past 43 years for which comparable employment data is available. According to the Federal Reserve, the state’s unemployment rate of 3.5% in November 2018 was the lowest in that period. The previous lows were 3.7% in April and October 2000.
Unemployment in Kentucky was 5% in December 2015, the month Bevin took office.
Bevin: Illinois marijuana policy is hurting that state
When asked about recreational marjuana’s potential to “enhance revenue” in the state, Bevin pointed to Illinois - a state that recently legalized recreational marijuana - as proof that cannabis will not solve Kentucky’s economic problems.
“They’re hemorrhaging people (in Illinois),” Bevin said. “People are flying out of there. Revenue is struggling. Their taxes are ratcheting up because the state is bleeding out.”
Definitive statements about recreational marijuana’s effect on Illinois’ economy are impossible to make. The bill legalizing distribution and possession will not take effect until Jan. 1. In 2013, the state legalized medical marijuana, which Beshear has proposed for Kentucky.
Illinois has a growing population exodus. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has the second most rapidly declining population nationwide; last year, more than 45,000 Illinois residents moved from the state.
Beshear: Marijuana more effective than opioids for chronic pain
In advocating medical marijuana, Beshear said it was better than opioids for treating chronic pain. While many people say cannabis helps their chronic pain, research on that is sparse, and does not support Beshear’s assertion.
Last month, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky hosted a conference to discuss the potential of medical marijuana. Shanna Babalonis, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, said, “We're not saying 100 percent that cannabinoids do not work for pain; it's just we're really limited in being able to demonstrate that.”
Bevin also endorsed medical marijuana, but he said taxing it would be “cruel” because the current state sales tax exempts drugs. Beshear said after the debate that the legislature wouldn’t approve medical cannabis without the incentive of tax revenue.
Beshear: Kentucky loses $550 million a year to gaming in bordering states
Asked about new sources of revenue, Beshear reiterated his plan for expanded gaming and said Kentucky loses $550 million each year to bordering states like Indiana and Illinois, where casino gambling is available. That appears to be an extrapolation of earlier estimates.
A 2011 analysis by Spectrum Gaming, a consultancy, said Kentuckians gambled $546 million in 2010, at least $451 million of it at casinos in neighboring states, and estimated the figure would be $527 million in 2015. Spectrum did the analysis for horse-racing interests.
Bevin: Under him, Kentucky has $22 billion in investment creating 57,000 jobs
When a Bevin TV ad last month cited 55,000 new jobs, the state Cabinet for Economic Development said that was the number announced by companies building or expanding in Kentucky. “There’s no immediate way to know which jobs have been filled,” said Jack Mazurak, the cabinet’s communications director. “Companies that receive state incentives submit reports to the state annually, but again, due to the lag time between announcement, site development, construction and the actual job creation and total ramp-up, it can take a few years.”
Emily Laytham, a University of Kentucky journalism student, is covering the 2019 gubernatorial race for The State Journal. Colleague Bailey Vandiver contributed to this analysis.