Two state House members outlined the Democratic and Republican parties’ differences on a wide range of topics Wednesday during a Louisville Forum on Kentucky’s fall legislative races.
Democrats hold the majority in the Kentucky legislature’s lower chamber, but Republicans are once again making a push to take it back for the first time since 1921.
It won’t be an easy task for the GOP. To win a majority, Republicans need to defend 42 incumbents and pick up nine seats.
Here are some highlights of the discussion between House Republican Leader Jeff Hoover of Jamestown and Democratic state Rep. Tom Burch:
Thank You, West Virginia
Hoover said job creation is the top priority for his party and voters this year, and he blamed Democrats for failing to take action on creating a climate to spur economic growth.
“We have a real problem of creating jobs. Thank goodness for West Virginia,” said Hoover. “Because of our surrounding states, since 2010, West Virginia is the only state that has created fewer new private sector jobs than has Kentucky. We’re failing to create jobs, we’re failing to provide the climate and the environment for businesses to locate in Kentucky.”
Kentucky has the highest jobless rate compared to its neighbors, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Burch said more constituents are talking about education, rising tuition costs and health care.
He agreed jobs are a top issue and defended the Democratic majority’s record by noting how his party it passed legislation to allow General Electric and Ford Motor to retool their plants, which saved and created thousands of jobs.
“We’ve done a good job and will continue to do a good job,” said Burch.
The end of the fiscal year brought Kentucky bad news in the form of a $90-million revenue hole.
Gov. Steve Beshear filled that shortfall with a reduction order, but lawmakers from both parties say the best solution is generating more revenue through reforming the state’s tax code.
“We’ve had study after study, and task force after task force,” said Hoover. “The governor in 2012 put together a group that was led by the former mayor of Louisville. They came up with 460 pages of recommendations for modernizing our antiquated tax structure, and since that was delivered to us in December 2012 we’ve not had one hearing in the General Assembly.”
Little has been done in the two years since the governor’s commission on tax reform or to address the state’s struggling public pension system.
Kentucky’s successful implementation of the federal health care overhaul, which has signed up over half a million residents, also came up during the discussion.
Asked how the state will fund the cost of Medicaid expansion once the federal government pays 90 percent rather than the full tab, Burch defended the law.
“The Affordable Care Act is a good business for us and there’s not an industrialized country in the world that does not have health care for its people,” he said.
“We can afford it. America can do anything it wants to do if the will is there to do it. We put a person on the moon, we can do anything we want to do.”
Burch pointed out the previous Medicaid funding formula for poor states like Kentucky had a 75 percent federal contribution before the health care overhaul.
Hoover said the question of how to fund the additional cost of expanding Medicaid is a concern for GOP lawmakers. He said the cost will be “astronomical.”
“It’s easy now when the federal government is picking up the tab, but as noted in a couple of years when we have to pay our share of that it could be up to $500 million,” he said. “The only way to do that is to act now with comprehensive tax reform.”
Interestingly, the Republican leader did not mention repealing the law.
One area where Burch and Hoover had a sharp disagreement was when a question from the audience asked about measures to allow alternative forms of renewable energy to take root in the state.
Kentucky is one of 11 states, for instance, without any wind power-generated electricity. Burch said state leaders need to look at renewable energy as a future investment instead of job-killer.
“If we could get coal out of the way I’d think we would probably have a lot of good things going here,” he said Burch.
“We cannot depend on coal forever, it had its day and it created some jobs in areas that needed that employment. But if you’re talking about the future of coal, in 10 years from now it will not be an issue in this country. They’re going to have the fans, water power, and different energy sources to clean out the air.”
Many House Democrats representing coalfield areas would likely condemn Burch’s comments, particularly as the top of their ticket—U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes—is proclaiming herself to be the pro-coal contender.
Hoover seized on Burch’s comments about coal, saying the “startling” remarks are what many Democrats believe privately.
“We’ve lost 7,000 jobs in this state in the past couple of years in Eastern Kentucky primarily due to the regulations of the current administration in Washington, and more are to come,” he said.
“It’s indicative of the mindset that we are dealing with in Frankfort when a Democrat chairman who has been there as many years as my friend Rep. Burch has would say if we could get coal out of the way.”
But Hoover said the legislature has a so-called “green caucus” made up of bipartisan lawmakers looking at alternative energy sources that he’d continue supporting if the GOP takes back the House.