For The Oldham Era
Published: April 16, 2015
By RAE HODGE
Only hours after Kentucky’s junior Sen. Rand Paul, announced his bid for the U.S. Presidency from the lavish perch of Louisville’s historic Galt House, the wooden pews of La Grange Baptist Church were filled with the faithful.
Roughly 150 members of the local politerati gathered to listen as Kentucky’s four Republican gubernatorial candidates—Matt Bevin, James Comer, Hal Heiner, and Will T. Scott—pleaded their cases at the Oldham County GOP Women’s Club Debate. The Oldham Era was asked to join WGTK talk show host Joe Elliot as a moderator.
Though the event was not an actual debate—no points were awarded, no winner declared—the four candidates were still afforded the opportunity to speak on their positions and compete for the attention of the conservative crowd.
The candidates struggled to distinguish themselves from one another and expressed tight agreement on multiple issues. All four said they want to allow charter schools to operate in the state, prevent federal environmental regulations from impacting the coal industry, and restore the voting rights of former felons.
Outlined below are those issues where the candidates’ positions grew distinct from one another.
Among the questions posed, candidates were asked about their plans to manage Kentucky’s $14 billion unfunded pension liability.
Comer, who has previously called for a full audit of the state’s ailing pension system by State Auditor Adam Edelen, urged for a privatization of the pension system. Heiner agreed.
Bevin, who has worked in the pension management industry, called for a freeze on pensions.
“We’ve got to require more of our current workers in helping shore up their own retirement in the future,” he said, adding that the state should move toward a 401 (k)-style retirement plan.
“We can’t change it. We can’t do away with it,” argued Scott of Kentucky’s current pension system. Scott then proposed a constitutional amendment to allow expanded gambling in the state with a portion of the revenues used to fund pensions.
Although it failed to pass the Kentucky General Assembly during the 2015 session, one topic where candidates diverged was the proposed Local Option Sales Tax that would allow voters to decide whether to implement a temporary one-percent sales tax to fund local projects.
Despite the measure receiving widely bi-partisan support among Democrats and Republicans, Scott was the only Republican in favor of the proposal at the debate.
“You have about 16 projects that are submitted to the legislature every year. Only about four of them are ever going to get approved. Then the second year (of Kentucky’s biennial budget cycle) you get four more, so that’s eight,” said Scott. “So it helps local communities do those things that want to for economic development.”
The sales tax question opened the door for a more thorough discussion on the overall reform of Kentucky’s outdated tax code. All of the candidates support reducing corporate taxes to varying degrees, though a few differences emerged.
Bevin’s strategy is to get rid of inheritance taxes, reduce corporate tax rates, and “broaden the tax base.” Often heard in the 2012 presidential election cycle, broadening the tax base means cutting certain individual tax rates while scaling back tax credits and deductions to make up for the difference in revenues to the state.
Comer said he’d “reduce government spending by 15 percent,” eventually getting to full tax reform, a Herculean task given Kentucky’s ranking as the third most federally dependent state in WalletHub’s 2015 study.
Heiner launched into a well-practiced speech on job creation, proposing cutting corporate taxes as a baseline for all reform.
Scott broke away from other candidates altogether, advocating for a 5 to 6 percent corporate tax rate and warning that if the legislature opened up the state’s tax code for reform purposes, a free-for-all would occur among legislators angling to secure tax rates favorable to their own districts.
Nationally applauded for its success in enrolling more than 400,000 uninsured Kentuckians, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s state healthcare exchange, Kynect, was roundly criticized by all candidates during the debate.
The costs of Kynect are scheduled to shift to the state incrementally as the returns on investment stabilize. The state will pay 5 percent of costs in 2017, rising until costs are capped at 10 percent in 2020. An extensive study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which projects that Kynect will pay for itself by 2021, remains at the center of partisan arguments.
Scott opened the topic by offering that while the federal program would have to be dealt with in Washington D.C., he favors allowing patients to deduct healthcare expenses via tax credit.
Heiner punted on the question. He didn’t offer a plan, or what he would do to manage expanded Medicaid costs in the state, but took shots at Beshear for using federal funds to establish Kynect.
Meanwhile, Comer came straight out of the gate with, “Obamacare is the worst piece of legislation in my entire lifetime.”
Keeping his answer brief, Comer emphasized the need to increase the number of insurance-providing jobs in the state in order to move more people off of Medicaid services, and referred attendees to examine his full plan available in detail at his campaign website, jamescomer.com.
Bevin, on the other hand, pushed for an all-out dismantling of the state-controlled healthcare exchange, Kynect. He proposed (as he has in the past) that the state shift all control and funding of the program to the federal government.
With public outcry against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act still recent and loud, the candidates wasted no time in agreeing with each other that they support the controversial act given the chance.
“There was absolutely nothing discriminatory whatsoever in that piece of legislation, “ said Bevin. “And for anyone—the Governor of Indiana or anyone else—to be held to apologize for it, I think, is insane.”
Comer responded with full-throated support: “I strongly support Kentucky’s religious freedom bill. It does not need to be amended…This is a Christian nation and a Christian state, founded by Christian leaders.”
And Heiner echoed back the same sentiment: “I believe in the freedom of religious expression and it shouldn’t end at the doors of the church.”
But Scott, arguably the most qualified to weigh in on the topic, was frank with the crowd gathered in the church, telling them that state statutes meant to regulate certain religious legal exemptions can’t trump constitutional protections against discrimination.
“Sometimes we may not like it, but it’s the law,” he said.
Scott told the crowd how Kentucky’s version of the “religious freedom” law began as a response to state-regulated safety signs on the horse-drawn carriages of Mennonite and Amish families using state roads. The state requires such vehicles to be emblazoned with a garish orange triangle to enhance their visibility, while the families argued for a modest silver-gray reflective sign, more in line with their religious prohibition on loud colors.
In a five-Justice majority, the Kentucky Supreme Court eventually decided in 2012 that the need for highway safety outweighed the religious freedoms of the Amish. It was a precedent-setting example of religious compromises made on behalf of the public good. But, constitutionalist or no, Scott himself wrote the dissenting opinion.