It wasn’t until 30 minutes into the hour-long debate on WDRB Tuesday night that one of the candidates even acknowledged that he shared a stage with two other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls.
The question was on marijuana, and Attorney General Andy Beshear had just said he felt the state would be able to find $50 million in revenue by taxing medicinal marijuana. As the camera shifted to former auditor Adam Edelen, he was teed up with an answer to Beshear’s claim.
“Andy is a good man, but we have a difference of opinion,” Edelen said. “I believe that medical marijuana, by it’s very definition is medicine and I will never be a governor who believes that we ought to tax medicine.”
Instead, Edelen said, the state would be able to save the money if they decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana.
It was hardly a zing, but demonstrated one of the few policy differences between the Democratic candidates as they vie to take on the man who has sucked much of the oxygen out of the primary — Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.
When asked about Edelen’s statement after the debate, Beshear still didn’t acknowledge him by name, instead doubling down on the fact that medicinal marijuana could create revenue to address Kentucky’s massively underfunded pension system.
“I believe the legislation that was working through the general assembly, if you ask the authors, those were their projections,” Beshear said.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, said his bill did not project bringing in $50 million for the state. He said the intention behind the bill was that any taxes that were applied to farmers or manufacturers would go to regulation of the industry and nothing else.
“We don’t want to make one dollar on it,” Nemes told the Herald-Leader Tuesday night. “When you’re making money on medicinal marijuana, you’re making money on the backs of sick people.”
Beshear said there were other ways to make revenue on the bill than just through taxing the medicine.
“I do believe it creates more revenue because you have farmers earning more money, you have controlled dispensaries that will have to be set up and ultimately we create more jobs in the healthcare field,” Beshear said. “But I believe that if we take this step it should be revenue positive and, yes, that revenue should go to the pension system.”
House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, who is also a candidate for governor, said he too thought the legislation should be revenue positive.
“I think we would have to be careful with the bill how we do that,” Adkins said. “I would want it to produce some revenue for the state but we need to look at how that would actually work and function so we don’t have to put that burden on the very people we’re trying to help.”
But Adkins also pointed out that the bill is fluid because it has proven difficult to get a medical marijuana bill through the legislature.
“I think the votes are there. Another bipartisan issue that can pass,” Adkins said. “I think [Republican Senate] Leadership basically is holding the bill up.”
Adkins and the other candidates were asked in the debate about whether they would be able to get any of their stated campaign goals through the legislature. Republicans currently have a super-majority in the House and the Senate and would not only be able to override gubernatorial vetoes, but would be able to ignore any demands from the executive branch.
Adkins said he would be able to use his relationships with lawmakers to get any legislation passed, Edelen said he was able to work in a bipartisan manner as auditor and Beshear said he would set a tone of civility in the governor’s office that would improve the relationship with the legislature.
But Edelen also took the opportunity to jab the governor, who got into a public spat with Senate President Robert Stivers when he unexpectedly vetoed a bill to provide pension relief to some Kentucky universities and quasi-governmental agencies like mental health centers and health departments.
“I hope it’s asked of Republican Governor Matt Bevin because it’s clear that he’s not doing a good job of working with his own majorities,” Edelen said.
For his part, Bevin put out a one-minute video before the debate that featured pictures of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex, D-N.Y., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“Come up with something better than promising the rest of our money on something you know you won’t be able to deliver on,” Bevin said.