Beshear’s biggest error may have been his first action as governor

Published 11:28 am Thursday, January 9, 2020

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By Joseph Gerth

Louisville Courier Journal

The real test for freshly minted Gov. Andy Beshear begins Tuesday, when the Kentucky General Assembly comes into session and may well begin work to slap down the governor, who on his first day in office made a huge blunder.

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That’s the day Beshear issued an executive order wiping out the old Kentucky Board of Education as it had existed under former Gov. Matt Bevin and replaced it with a board of his own choosing.

Getting rid of the old board, which had only one educator on it, was clearly the right move.

The problem is that Beshear didn’t appoint a single Republican to his 11-member school board. That ladies and gentlemen, has riled up a Republican-led legislature that already wanted Beshear to be a one-term governor.

This from a guy who made bipartisanship a major theme in his inaugural address.

“Well, we’re all in this together on team Kentucky. Which means we have to begin looking at each other as teammates, as fellow Kentuckians, not as Republicans and Democrats,” Beshear said. “Not as liberals and conservatives, not as rural or urban.”

It truly was a bone-headed move on Beshear’s part for a couple of reasons:

First, if the Republican Senate doesn’t like the fact that he didn’t appoint a single Republican (it doesn’t) it can simply refuse to approve Beshear’s board appointments, forcing him to create a new board and appoint new members once the legislature leaves town.

Second, the GOP has the power to severely restrict Beshear’s ability to wipe out boards and reorganize government agencies and potentially give themselves or other constitutional officers the power to appoint some or all members of important boards and commissions.

And third, if the Republican Senate refuses to approve Beshear’s appointments and then strips his power to appoint, well, you see where this is heading.

You’d think that someone who watched his father as governor, who has surrounded himself with so many of his father’s aides, and who served four years as attorney general, would have thought through this a little better than Beshear apparently did.

When the fact that he had not appointed a single Republican to the school board was brought to the administration’s attention last month, the official response was to hide behind a state law that is designed to stop administrations from packing the school board with members of their own party.

According to state law, a governor can’t consider political party when making appointments to what is nominally a nonpartisan board.

The problem with this is that — especially in the current hyperpartisan environment — politicians normally surround themselves with members of their own party. When they do that, their default position is going to be to appoint members of their own party to boards and commissions.

And that’s exactly what Beshear has done.

Heck, even Bevin, who was the most partisan of governors we’ve had in decades, appointed two Democrats to the state school board.

Beshear could have avoided this error simply by asking a couple of Republicans — perhaps Senate President Robert Stivers and Education Committee Chairman Max Wise — for their recommendations for a new school board.

Just like Beshear appointed Democrats because he knows and trusts Democrats, it’s likely that Stivers and Wise would have recommended Republicans to serve on the board.

That would have given them some ownership of the new board and may have given the legislature and other Republicans pause before they nix his appointments and consider stripping him of, or at least weakening, his power of appointment.

Now, Beshear has very little time to fix the situation that he screwed up.

He can send one of his top aides, former Democratic House Leader Rocky Adkins, up to the Capitol’s third floor to try to smooth things over with legislative leaders.

Adkins is well-liked up there, but it’s unlikely the Republicans like him well enough to let this slide. Senate Republicans, weeks ago, sounded their displeasure with Beshear.

“We started this week with a promise of collaboration and cooperation,” Stivers, a Republican, said in a statement three days after Beshear was inaugurated. “Respectfully, Governor Beshear’s rhetoric is not supported by his actions.”

Republicans may have been looking for reasons to strip a Democratic governor of powers, just like they did in North Carolina and Wisconsin in recent years.

Beshear’s greatest failure could go down as giving them a reason to do just that.