State legislative candidates for Kentucky House and Senate races took center stage Thursday morning in a political forum presented by the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce.
The political program served as the chamber’s October Power in Partnership breakfast at the Julian Carroll Convention Center. In the Nov. 4 election, the District 3 House race incumbent Rep. Gerald Watkins, a Democrat, is challenged by Republican Randy Bridges. In the District 2 Senate race to replace long-time Sen. Bob Leeper, Democratic candidate Jeff Parker and Republican Danny Carroll face each other.
Candidates gave a brief opening and closing statement, in addition to answering questions from a media panel consisting of Robert Bradfield, WPSD; Lauren Duncan, The Paducah Sun; Greg Dunker, WKYX-WKYQ; and Chad Lampe, WKMS. Todd Faulkner, WPSD anchor, served as moderator.
Both Watkins and Bridges said they supported allowing a statewide ballot referendum on establishing a local option sales tax to give communities an opportunity to fund a specific project for a specified period of time with an additional penny of sales tax.
In response to a question on how they would deal with the poverty rate in the district, both spoke of humble beginnings that provide an understanding of the issue.
“My dad had a sixth grade education, my mom an eighth grade education,” Watkins said. “I grew up in poverty. I know what it’s like, and I know the value of education.”
Watkins noted his work on a local poverty task force, voting to fund a community program and efforts to help establish the “2+2” initiative creating a four-year university presence in Paducah between West Kentucky Community & Technical College and Murray State University, as well as the University of Kentucky School of Engineering.
“It (2+2) is the greatest thing to happen in Paducah and McCracken County in the last 50 years … it’s going to change people’s lives, and lift people out of poverty,” said Watkins.
Bridges said: “I did not grow up with a silver spoon … I understand the conditions (of poverty). I also understand this is America, and you can lift yourself up.” He also noted the importance of education and stressed the need to make sure the state’s budget is allocated in ways “to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty.”
The candidates split on the issue of raising the minimum wage, with Bridges contending a proposed increase from $7.25 to $10.10 would place a hardship on small and large business owners. Watkins said he voted to increase the minimum wage as there are 60,000 people in Kentucky earning at or below the minimum rate, even working two or three jobs without benefits.
Both said they would oppose the abolishment of the death penalty in Kentucky.
Regarding a possible solution to the state’s unfunded pension liabilities, Watkins said the Legislature is being responsible in looking for ways to lower pension obligations and funding the actuarially required contributions (ARC) to the retirement system, in addition to operating a balanced budget. Bridges disagreed that the state is doing everything possible. He said the budget is operating in debt, and that the current retirement system is not sustainable.
Both expressed their opposition to expanding gambling in Kentucky.
“I stand against gambling,” Bridges said. “Gambling is not the salvation of our economy, it actually is a detriment to it. It preys on the poor and the elderly, and that’s the very people our state is supposed to be protecting.” He suggested Watkins had expressed his opposition to gambling, but had supported it in the Legislature.
“No, I would absolutely not support an expansion of gambling, I wouldn’t even vote to put it on the ballot,” Watkins said. “I don’t think that’s the answer to our economic problems. My opponent is mistaken in saying I wanted to expand gambling.”
Watkins said he did vote to tax keno, which the Supreme Court had ruled as legal, and to collect more of the lottery money for the general fund to fully fund the ARC.
In the Senate race, both Parker and Carroll said they are fundamentally opposed to increasing taxes, but would support a statewide initiative to create a local option sales tax since it would ultimately be locally controlled. They both raised concerns about the impact the Affordable Care Act will have on Kentucky.
Parker noted the state has 500,000 Kentuckians, including 70,000 children, who now have health care and “we can’t take it away.” He said the state will have to deal with the ACA’s impact in the state’s budget after 2016, “and it will not be a good thing.”
Carroll said the ACA will lead to fewer jobs for Kentuckians when you look at the burden of having to provide health insurance, and expressed concern about the state’s smaller hospitals being able to comply with all ACA requirements. “We all agree health care needs to be available to our people, but we must be responsible. We can’t spend money that we don’t have.”
Both candidates expressed opposition to raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but indicated willingness to consider a smaller increase. Carroll said he prefers to have the free market address wage issues, but would consider a reasonable increase. Parker said he would be more likely to consider an increase in certain business sectors other than the service sector.
In response to a question about Paducah’s declining population, and ways to combat it, Parker said: “The first thing we have to do is rein in Paducah Power,” in reference to the utility’s electric rates and their impact on the city’s ability to be business-friendly and attract and keep business, industry and residents.
Carroll said a state senator’s role is to help provide opportunities, like attracting technology-based jobs that will encourage young people to stay in Paducah. “This community has so much to offer.”
The candidates expanded their concern about the need to push the U.S. Department of Energy’s efforts to fund the cleanup of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant site to include working to end the state’s 30-year moratorium on building new nuclear power plants in Kentucky.
They both support restoring funding of higher education, as well as finding ways to spur economic development.
“Business and manufacturing is the key (for economic development),” Carroll said. “We need to create an environment in which all the folks in this room (the business community) and throughout the state can be successful,” including reducing taxes and regulations.
Parker said, “I know what it is to meet payroll, pay taxes and utilities … it’s an everyday grind. We need to come together as stakeholders and use the resources we have.” In addition to attracting new industry, Parker said economic development efforts must help existing business and industry grow.
Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.