Candidates for the 92nd, 93rd and 94th district state House seats gathered in Pikeville late last week for a forum hosted by Kentucky Farm Bureau, in which they discussed issues facing eastern Kentucky, focusing on farming and agriculture.
John Blanton (R) and John Short (D), candidates for the 92nd District, Chris Harris (D) and Norma Kirk-McCormick (R), candidates for the 93rd, and Angie Hatton (D), candidate for the 94th District, answered questioned posed by Farm Bureau moderators, which addressed fiscal affairs, transportation, natural resources, education and rural development.
Candidates were asked if they support the continuation of a law that limits government to collect no more than a 4 percent increase in property taxes each year, a current sales tax exemption for agricultural inputs.
All the candidates said they support keeping the cap on property taxes increases at 4 percent and the current tax exemption for agricultural inputs and that the state tax code needs to be modernized.
“I realize our pension funds are in dire straits,” Kirk-McCormick said. “I don’t know where they’re going to get the money from, but raising taxes isn’t the answer. In order to recruit industry into eastern Kentucky, I strongly feel we need to offer tax incentives to industry.”
“As a state, I think, we tax modernization,” Harris said. “With the new economy, everything is happening over the internet. I think we are missing out on a lot of opportunities for additional revenue in the state. Some of the old forms of revenue are dying off. We all want services: We want government to do more and more. But, the reality is, if you do more, you have to pay for it. I hope tax reform will move forward.”
Moderators noted that, currently 22.2 percent of the state’s road fund budget is used for rural roads, including farm-to-market roads. They asked whether candidates supported that fund, and what road projects in their district would have priority in their administration.
All the candidates agreed that the 22.2 percent rural road fund should remain in place, and that the expansion of the Mountain Parkway and U.S. 460 are vital to economic growth in eastern Kentucky. Harris noted construction of highways near the new Martin County high school and to Phelps were important projects.
“Any roads that lead to industrial parks would be given priority, to try to get us some jobs in those industrial parks,” Hatton said.
Questions posed to the candidates regarding the state’s natural resources, coal, oil, natural gas and timber, addressed ways to revitalize the coal and natural gas markets, focused on whether coal severance tax revenue should be distributed to coal-producing counties, and how the state could take advantage of its timber resource.
Each candidate said they were in favor of returning all coal severance funds back to coal-producing counties.
John Short said Kentucky imported three million tons of coal, and that he has pre-filed legislation which would require utility companies to use Kentucky coal, if available.
“Three million tons of coal would put Kentucky back to work,” Short said. “It’s ridiculous that we have to have the lowest form of energy. It’s baloney. They have a 30 percent add-ons on our power bills. If they had continued using coal, and not importing it, it would never have been 30 percent.”
“We are just going to elect Trump, and he’s going to take care of the issue with the coal, and we are going to support him all the way,” Kirk-McCormick said. “We all know that Obama is the problem with the war on coal.”
Hatton said she would work toward non-partisan solutions.
“I’m personally outraged that the governor vetoed the proposition that we were going to get our coal severance tax back,” Hatton said. “We mined it, we are the ones hurting when it’s gone. I’m not upholding anything the Democrats have done on the national level, and I won’t. But, I’m also personally very angry with our U.S. congressmen who didn’t take care of us, and could have. They are some of the most powerful men in this country, and what did they do for us? If they are powerful, why are we not powerful? Why aren’t we mad at them? The solution is to listen to every single idea there is. I don’t care if it’s a Democratic or Republican idea. If it’s a good one, let’s listen to it.”
John Blanton said timber is a viable resource, but that “we have to think outside the box when we look at industry.”
Blanton gave the example of a European company that located in Corbin to manufacture popsicle sticks and coffee stirrers.
“Why are we cutting our timber and sending it to another state to build furniture and other products?” Blanton asked. “We have to recruit these companies: pallet companies, furniture companies — anything made of wood.”
In the area of education, moderators asked candidates if they supported expanded technical and career education, what they would do to retrain displaced miners, and what they felt was the future of young Kentuckians after they receive their education.
All the candidates agreed that technical education is increasingly more important, and supported its growth in the state’s schools.
Blanton said he believes one problem with our educational system is common core.
“We need to allow our teachers and our educators that know what they’re doing to make decisions about what’s being taught in their classrooms, not bureaucrats sitting in Washington,” Blanton said.
Harris said he currently has a bill that would make eastern Kentucky more attractive to those who want to stay here after school.
“ The Rural Jobs Act would incentivize investment in rural Kentucky,” Harris explained. “The Golden Triangle has plenty of investment. There’s plenty of jobs and opportunity for people. But, rural Kentucky has not seen the same growth. The bill would incentivize entrepreneurs to invest in rural Kentucky, and create jobs in rural Kentucky. They would be tax credit, paid for with the additional taxes from those new workers that are going to be hired. That would help young eastern Kentucky kids come back and work in eastern Kentucky.”
Julia Roberts is a reporter for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville.