Kentucky Primary 2019: Rocky Adkins Tries To Revive Rural Democrats
Rocky Adkins is one of four Democrats running for Kentucky governor this year. He has served in the state legislature since 1987 and was the powerful majority floor leader in the Kentucky House of Representatives until Republicans won control of the chamber two years ago.
Hailing from rural eastern Kentucky, Adkins has worked in the coal industry and is currently the president of RJA Enterprises, a company that does "project development" for companies in the energy and transportation fields.
Adkins is more conservative than his primary opponents and is a longtime member of the legislature's "pro-life" caucus.
But he describes himself a moderate who can win votes in rural Kentucky that have gone to Republicans in recent years and thinks he has the skills necessary to unite the party against incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Adkins sat for an hour-long interview with WFPL reporters in April. You can listen to his full interview below, or read and listen to highlights on some of the big issues facing Kentucky today. Transcripts have been condensed for clarity.
Adkins on ways Kentucky could raise revenue
Adkins on what Kentucky should do to address its underfunded pension systems
Adkins' position on Kentucky's Medicaid expansion
Adkins on his stance on abortion
Adkins on possible solutions for the opioid crisis
Adkins' position on school choice and charter schools
Adkins' stance on climate change
Adkins on ways to spur economic development in eastern Kentucky
Question: Kentucky has experienced a series of budget shortfalls over the last 15 years. What do you think the state needs to do about this? Does the state need to consider raising taxes?
Answer: "Well, I think there's no question, we would all hope you could grow the economy, create an economy that would create more revenue, so the state would have more money to spend. But we understand that probably won't happen to the magnitude we would like for it to take care of the shortfall of money that's needed to fund public education, to fund pensions.
"Here's where I would recommend we start and it is where I would start as governor: In Kentucky we have $13 billion of tax loopholes and exemptions — $2 billion more than our entire general fund budget. Let's look at those. Let's see what is working, what's not working. We don't want to hurt business and industry. We don't want to have an impact that would hurt the economy. But let's see what's been in those loopholes for long periods of time that may not be working anymore. Let's look at what we could exclude and take out of that. If we can only affect 10 percent of that 13 billion, that'd be $1.3 billion that we could put back into the general fund. $1.3 billion to put into public education or into pensions. We need to consider tax reform, tax modernization.
"We need to look at a tax reform policy that doesn’t put more burden on working families across Kentucky. We need to look at a fair tax reform that's well-shared and one that will be competitive for the 21st century."
Question: On pensions...The governor’s proposals so far have been reducing or changing benefits for future state workers, and putting a whole lot of money into the pension systems. What's your critique of that plan? What do you think should be done?
"Well, first of all, I'm not for privatizing public pensions. And that's been [Bevin’s] attempt. And I think that's wrong.
"We started reforms in ‘08, again in 2010 and did major reforms in 2013. The reforms that we did in 2013 are working. Numbers don't lie. Democrats controlled the House, Senate Republicans controlled the Senate majority. We worked in a bipartisan way, passed a bipartisan bill in 2013 with stakeholders at the table. We put a pension oversight board in place, we done a $3 million audit of the system. And we said since we've had these crashes, we're coming out the greatest recession, public and private pensions have been hurt. But the public pensions we got to put more money in.
"So what I would tell you is to keep the reforms of 2013 that were done in a bipartisan way with stakeholders at the table and make sure we find that revenue stream that we need to fund moving forward. But the pension systems are on a recovery. We're on the right track and any modifications that we would do in the future, please do it the way we have done with any other reform: stakeholders at the table, bipartisan support."
Question: Would you keep Medicaid expansion or continue the current administration's roll back of that?
Answer: "I'm a tremendous supporter of expanded Medicaid. I think it's the right approach. I think it's working.
"We were able to drive the uninsured from about 19 percent to about 6 percent across Kentucky and I think that's been very positive, not only for those who are getting better health care, those who are finally able to take themselves and their family — and a lot of these people are working two jobs — to finally for the first time be able to have some kind of health care to take care of them and their families. I would also say as a 24-year cancer survivor, as I am — I'm one of those people take chemo and radiation, had those needles in my arm, and I know what it means to have quality health care. I wouldn't be here today without it. There's no question about that.
"But here's the other part of that equation: What the governor is trying to do — to take away quality healthcare, thousands across Kentucky, his waiver would have took more than 100,000 people off the Medicaid rolls — in my opinion, is cruel. It’s the wrong approach.
"The greatest economic driver across Kentucky is the healthcare industry. Thousands of people work in that industry, from small communities to large communities. In some regions of Kentucky the only economic growth anybody has seen in the last three to five years, especially downturn of economies that have affected thousands of jobs in a negative way, has been in the health care industry either through capital construction growth, or the adding of employees."
Question: "Medicaid takes up a huge part of the state budget and expanding it took up a bit more. How would you address that issue?"
Answer: "Well, there's no question that we're going to have to find our 10 percent match that we gotta have to draw down the 90 percent on expanded Medicaid (the federal government pays 90 percent of the costs of expanded Medicaid). And I would just tell you that it's going to be more expensive not to. Indigent care at our hospitals across Kentucky has gone down tremendously because of expanded Medicaid. It's freed up those dollars to go back into the health care community to provide better services across Kentucky for our residents. So, I would tell you that the expansion of Medicaid, and now moving forward into the out years, as governor, it's going to be a great responsibility that we make sure we find the revenue, and that we make sure we have the revenue that we've got to have to match that 90 percent of those dollars. For every dollar we get 90 percent of that. And I think that's a good investment for Kentucky."
Question: Where’s that money going to come from?
Answer: "Well, I think you got to look within the general fund budget. And I think we got to find ways of how we're going to create the revenue.
"I think you start looking at the $13 billion of tax loopholes and exemptions. $2 billion more than our entire general fund budget. And if we can only shave off 10 percent of those loopholes and exemptions, that's $1.3 billion that we have freed up to go in the general fund to be able to use in different ways, whether it be for Medicaid, public education, or whether it be in other areas of the budget.
Question: "Would you raise taxes on hospitals? They have a tax that hasn’t been increased in years."
"The hospitals have looked at a proposal that would basically sustain expanded Medicaid into the future. And I have a great interest in that. Seems like most of the hospitals are on board with that. I've had an initial conversation of how that would actually work — when you implemented the overall process. I met with most of the rural hospitals the other day, and, you know, this is really a serious issue for them, because as much as 75 to 80 percent of their patients that come are Medicaid patients. It is, I think, a proposal that I've got a very open mind on. It seems like most of the medical community, from hospitals to doctors, are on board. But I want to learn a little bit more about how we would do that within the medical community to be able to provide the money that we need to match the Medicaid funds."
Question: What about your stance on abortion? Laws have been passed in the General Assembly this year and previous years that restrict access. Would you keep fighting for these laws in court?
Answer: "I represent a very conservative district and you know, you express the views of your constituents on your vote. But my stance is that I am pro-life. But the definition of that goes much further with me. The definition of that with pro-life with me is that we take care of these babies after they're born, we make sure they got a warm meal on the table, we make sure that they've got quality public education, we make sure they got quality health care. We would make sure that they hopefully they would be raised in a good family, whether it be foster care, or whatever it may be, and that a quality job would be there for them in the future. So that's my stance on that issue. When it comes to basically pro-life stance, we got to take care of families, we got to take care of these babies after they're born.
Question: So it sounds like you would keep fighting for the laws in court, as Gov. Bevin is?
Answer: "My issue is not there. What I would do as governor, I would uphold the law of the land."
Question: But those laws are being challenged in court.
Answer: "That’s right, and it’s the job, as far as I'm concerned, of the attorney general to fight that. As governor, I think each piece of legislation that comes through the door — regardless of what the issue is, whether it's this issue or another one — you put your hand on a Bible and you basically take an oath that you will uphold the Constitution and the law of the land. And that’s what I would do as governor."
Question: But the law of land right now is that Roe v. Wade stands. So you wouldn't go against that?
Answer: "Well, I think that would be irresponsible for me to do that, as governor. I think it I think as governor, when you put your hand on the Bible and you take an oath of office, there's no question that the oath that you take is that you will uphold the law of the land on any issue that it comes through, whether it be at the state level or at the federal level."
Question: How would you try to combat the opioid epidemic?
Answer: "Every family across Kentucky has been impacted in some shape, form or fashion, from this opioid crisis and this addiction sickness that hits all of our families and all of our communities. We either had a friend or a family member that suffered from the sickness of addiction. In the legislature, we've appropriated money to try to get people into treatment."
"We've also approved recovery centers to try to have more rehabilitation beds. We've also passed laws that have kind of had a fine line of being tough on crime to get drug pushers off the street and in jail, but also to have that fine line of compassion, of how we get people into the actual treatment centers for treatment to get them back into recovery. I think we've got to be more aggressive, when it comes to our jails and prisons, to have more implemented policies of recovery and treatment within our jails and prisons because 70 percent or greater of our people are incarcerated some kind of drug-related crime."
"So I believe it's our responsibility also to work with local officials, to work with community leaders who have already got programs within their communities as well, of how we can collaborate with those, and to really build throughout communities a stronger way forward. As all of our communities, regardless of rich or poor, or urban or rural, are suffering from a crisis of opioids and in a crisis really of addiction throughout our communities."
Question: What is your position on charter schools and "school choice" proposals like the tax credit bill proposed this year?
"I think the attempt to try to privatize public education is wrong...to take public education dollars out of the public public classroom and move it to a charter school, which will be run by a private for-profit corporation is wrong. It's not good for Kentucky is not good for the children of Kentucky is not good for the education system of Kentucky. So I’m very opposed to charter schools."
"School choice, to give tax credits to be able to send your children to private schools, is again taking money out of the General Fund, which will have a very negative impact on public education. I'm very opposed to that. I was opposed to House Bill 205 in this last session. It's a bad piece of legislation."
"I think that if we're going to have a healthy economy, and we want to have the Kentucky we want to have, we've got to have a world class public education system here in Kentucky that is well-funded, to give our children the opportunity that they need to equality, public education. And that's what I support."
Question: What priority will your administration place on mitigating the impacts of man-made climate change? And what will you do about it?
Answer: "We're seeing growth in population around the world. We're seeing more countries become industrialized. Population growth in those countries as well is growing. There's no question about that. Those other countries like India and many others, China that you continue to mention the South Asian countries that are developing in a way to an industrial kind of economy that they've not had in the past, more people getting electricity. All of that is creating more use of energy, more emissions and all of that.
"In 2007 — this has been one area that I've been intricately involved in. We passed a piece of legislation called Kentucky's Energy Independence National Leadership Act...We put the first language in in the nation, that read ‘carbon capture ready.’ ...So on the other side of the bill, we also created what was called the Center for Renewable Energy, Environmental Stewardship at the Speed Engineering School here in the University of Louisville. And after we passed that piece of legislation, we had the same languages research and development. We had the same language to try to attract international companies to come here and have the research and development done. And that is happening here now as we speak.
"That legislation kind of hallmarks who I am on this issue, and it is the first legislation as far as being able to control emissions, to have a cleaner earth, to have cleaner air."
Question: Do you believe in man-made climate change?
Answer: “Well, I think anytime you have the growth of population the way we are, and you have the growth of energy use the way we are, there's no question that it has an impact on the environment. There's no question about that. So yes, I mean, the scientific data that you would look at, would indicate that as well. But we're at a point now where we never thought some parts of the world would be getting the type of industrial growth that we're seeing now. So anytime you have a growth of population, usage of energy resources at a greater magnitude than we've ever seen, we would hope that these technologies that are there that have been built, will be used in those countries as they build whatever process they're going to build of being able to produce their energy."
Economic Transition In Eastern Kentucky
Question: Do you believe that renewable energy will play a role in the recovery of some of these communities in Eastern Kentucky?
Answer: "Well, I think they have an opportunity to. I don't think there's any question about that, especially if we're able to do the manufacturing of whatever the renewable part or piece may be.
"We have an opportunity to build a new economy, a diversified economy. The more advanced manufacturing we can put into rural Kentucky, to help those communities to recover, the better. That's how you get rid of the valleys, that we have gone through for generations.
"And I'm one of those. I walked out the door one day with 1,200 people in the downturn of the coal economy; I know what it feels like. So you're looking at a person that knows rural Kentucky, because I felt it, it's where I live, and to be able to diversify those economies in the making of pieces in part for the renewable energy industry, or whether it be the aerospace industry, or whether it be the hemp legislation in the farm bill that I helped right here in Kentucky, to be able to bring in the industrial hemp manufacturing. All of that is a part of the game plan to be able to diversify the economy of rural Kentucky while we keep the economic engines of our Commonwealth running strong."
About this series: WFPL invited all eight Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates to sit down for an hour-long interview with a panel of our reporters on a variety of policy issues. Five responded in some way. We’ll be rolling out profiles of those five candidates in the coming days, along with a profile of Gov. Matt Bevin; while he wouldn’t sit for an interview, in his first term as governor he’s established a policy record that voters can draw from. You can read other profiles as they're published here.