KENTUCKY — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron sparred over a key tax policy in their final debate Tuesday night, sharpening their closing pitches to voters with two weeks left in their hard-hitting campaign for governor in Kentucky.
The Bluegrass State campaign is one of the country’s most closely watched off-year elections and could offer clues about voters’ sentiments heading into the 2024 contests for the White House and control of Congress. During the televised debate, the rivals pressed themes likely to become recurring talking points in the coming days as they crisscross the state to try to motivate supporters to go to the polls.
Cameron decried the learning loss suffered by many Kentucky students during pandemic-era school closures that he blames on the governor. The GOP challenger berated President Joe Biden's economic policies while trying to link the incumbent governor to the Democratic president — employing a common Republican strategy to attack Democrats in red states like Kentucky.
“Inflation is rocking your wallet and is killing your savings,” Cameron said during the hourlong debate in Lexington.
Beshear touted his stewardship of the state's economy — amid record-setting economic development growth — and his leadership following a series of tragedies during his term, including deadly tornadoes that hit portions of western Kentucky and flooding that inundated parts of Appalachia in the east.
He accused Cameron of an “overly partisan” perspective, saying it would stymie the state's momentum.
“Folks, we have got to keep this going,” Beshear said. “And in me, you have a governor that doesn’t see Team Red or Team Blue, just Team Kentucky.”
They delved into a series of issues, including the planned phaseout of the state individual income tax.
Beshear, who is seeking a second term in the Nov. 7 election, said the phaseout should be done carefully to guarantee state revenues remain sufficient to support schools, public safety and health care programs.
“I do want to continue to make those (tax) cuts, but we’ve got to do it wisely and carefully, not rashly,” the governor said.
Cameron has vowed to preside over eliminating the personal income tax if elected governor.
“I believe that you should have more of your hard-earned money in your pocket,” he said.
Cameron was asked if he wants to accelerate the timetable for eliminating the income tax. He responded that he wants to end the tax “in a thoughtful and responsible manner.”
Beshear promptly accused his challenger of evading the question.
“You just asked him a simple question: Will he speed it up?" Beshear said. "And he still won’t answer it.”
The gradual phase-out of the income tax was the cornerstone of a plan approved by the state's GOP-dominated Legislature in 2022 to shift the tax burden from income to consumption.
However, the state's individual income tax rate is set to remain the same in 2025 after the state failed to meet certain fiscal requirements needed to trigger another cut under the phaseout.
Cameron and Beshear have wrangled repeatedly over the governor's approach to income tax cuts.
Beshear notes that he signed a measure this year that will lower the individual income tax rate by a half-percentage point to 4%, effective Jan. 1, 2024. It follows up on last year’s tax overhaul, which resulted in a reduction of the tax rate from 5% to 4.5% at the start of this year.
Beshear vetoed last year’s bill revamping parts of the state tax code, setting in motion the income tax phaseout. Cameron has railed against the veto, and Republicans note that in his veto message, the governor warned the bill would threaten the state's economic future. Beshear objected to provisions in the bill that extended the sales tax to more services. GOP lawmakers overrode his veto. As an alternative, the governor backed an unsuccessful effort last year to temporarily cut the state sales tax rate.
In his closing remarks Tuesday night, Cameron stressed eliminating the income tax while laying out his agenda.
“We can make this commonwealth a shining city on a hill, a model and an example for the rest of the nation to follow,” Cameron said.
Beshear said he made tough decisions during tumultuous times including the COVID-19 pandemic and warned that his challenger embraces a hyper-partisan approach that would hurt the state.
“I will always be the type of governor that you might not agree with, but you’ll know he’s doing what he thinks is right,” the governor said.