ELECTION PREVIEW: State candidates weigh in on final forum

Less than a week away from Election Day, several state candidates running for the Kentucky House and Senate outlined on Thursday their views regarding issues that affect primarily the business community at a Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce forum downtown.

As chamber Executive Committee Chair-Elect Dave Roberts told the large crowd Thursday at City Hall, forums fulfill the chamber’s advocacy efforts but also provide a critical service to the community at large.

Simply put, he said, “Elections really do matter.”

Candidates present Thursday in the following races wrangled over 6 percent service taxes Frankfort passed this year and the unintended consequences they brought, the so-called bathroom bill and how social issues affect business, home rule legislation for cities and municipalities and public education and its role in workforce development.

8th District Senate

Bob Glenn, an Owensboro Democrat, emphasized over and over Thursday that his opponent Rep. Matt Castlen, an Owensboro Republican, and his entire party were attacking working-class families, the poor, public education and local governments. The 6 percent tax on services such as car repairs, dry-cleaning, lawn care services and more, was a step toward a more regressive tax system, he said, whereby broader categories like groceries or medicine would be next.

But Castlen, who spent the night directing the audience’s attention toward Kentucky’s job creation advancements and emphasized education and pension funding, said the service taxes were the first step in a six-to-eight-year process. Castlen said Glenn didn’t have an understanding of tax reform nor the law, because consumption-based taxes give consumers more choices over how and when they spend their money.

Fundraising dollars taxed for the first time this year were an unintended consequence, Castlen said, which will be fixed upon his return to Frankfort. Glenn called it a rushed mistake.

“These folks were in such a hurry to impress their handlers that they made mistakes,” Glenn said. “Are these nonprofits going to get their money back?”

Castlen was a co-sponsor of the bathroom bill, which would have prohibited individuals from using any facilities other than those intended for the gender they were born.

“I’m unapologetic about my Christian views,” he said. “If you were born a boy, you’re a boy; go to the boy’s restroom. If you were born a girl, you’re a girl; go to the girl’s restroom. If you don’t know, go home.”

The two largely agreed over home rule legislation, emphasizing that cities and counties should have more leeway in whether they institute a tax like, for example, a local-option sales tax, only if the money is spent on needs-only projects and that voters themselves have the opportunity to approve them.

Both also outlined the work they’ve done to connect education and workforce development. Glenn accused the Republican caucus of failing to fund public education, but Castlen pointed to the state’s highest ever base per-pupil funding.

7th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th District House

Seventh-District Rep. Suzanne Miles, an Owensboro Republican, spent most of her night unopposed on her views, because her Democratic challenger Joy Gray, of Owensboro, made only introductory remarks Thursday before leaving the forum for personal reasons. Gray pointed out how her opponent has painted an unfair picture of her, and that she wanted to set the record straight that she is a Christian who believes in the sanctity of all life from the womb to the grave.

Miles said she supported the Republican effort to institute 6 percent service taxes only because the legislation was part of a broader effort to modernize the tax code. Taxes on nonprofit fundraising efforts were unintentional and that she had already co-sponsored pre-filed legislation to exempt nonprofits. She also said she supported home rule legislation. A bathroom bill, she said, was very low on her list of priorities, and that, frankly, government didn’t need to be in a position to tell people where they should use the restroom. And public education, she said, was the most important player in economic development.

“I went through the chamber list of priorities, and I want to tell you tonight, that we want to came up with solutions,” Miles said. “… We’re delivering.”

Bruce Kunze, an Owensboro Democrat, spoke alone Thursday as well. His incumbent, opponent Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Republican, was not present. Kunze said he would have opposed the 6 percent service tax legislation, but he said he believed the fundraising component was an unintended consequence that will be fixed next year. He said he would have also opposed the bathroom bill because it was a blatant effort to discriminate against transgender people. Home rule legislation is important, he said, but it requires a referendum by the electorate, and he applauded community colleges for diversifying education offerings in the community.

“I’m anxious to serve,” he said. “I want to work with everyone, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. It’s OK to have different opinions.”

Owensboro Democrat Jim Glenn is looking to retake the 13th District House seat against incumbent Owensboro Republican Rep. DJ Johnson, who has held it since 2016. Glenn would have opposed the service tax legislation and criticized its fundraising caveat, a symptom of a Department of Revenue ruling. He said he believes a study needs to be done to determine where the 13th District falls on transgender bathroom usage, and home rule should be looked at more, too, he said, because he didn’t want the state to be left with “liabilities.” Public schools, he said, need to ensure that their students earning college credits are prepared for the change of culture that higher education provides.

“When I wake up every morning, I think of two questions,” Glenn said. “How do I help people in the state of Kentucky — how do I help make their lives better? And how do I help make the lives of people who live in the city of Owensboro better?”

Johnson said he supported the service taxes because they were a small step in a broader overhaul. Kentucky needs to be able to compete with states that don’t have income taxes, he said. As for the nonprofit taxes, the Republican leadership in Frankfort never intended them to go into effect, and they will be rolled back as soon as possible. Johnson was a co-sponsor of Kentucky’s bathroom bill, but he agreed with his opponent’s call to conduct more research on the matter. He said he’s interested in everyone’s rights, including those who do not want to use a restroom with the opposite sex. His instinct on home rule is that local governments should have more control, he said, but he did not want to provide a concrete answer on the question as a whole. He said he supports charter schools, because not every community is blessed with the same top-notch public schools as those in Owensboro and Daviess County.

“The whole reason I ran two years ago was to fix issues in Frankfort,” he said. “I was elected to take on some of those issues. Partly because of the decisions I’ve made, we have made significant progress, but I want to continue doing work for the people of this district.”

For the 14th District, there is no incumbent, and Elizabeth Belcher, an Owensboro Democrat, and Scott Lewis, a Beaver Dam Republican, are both vying for the open seat. Belcher came out against the service tax and asked about the monies that nonprofits had paid the state during the time since the service taxes were instituted. She said the bathroom bill was a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist and also supported home rule. She did say, however, that she would like to see home rule voted on by local constituents and that cities that institute it, like Owensboro, roll back occupational or insurance premium taxes in turn. Overall, she said, per-pupil spending has gone down in Kentucky over the last two decades, and the only way to build support for workforce and economic development would be through refunding public education alone.

“I am fighting for working people, especially firefighters, police officers, teachers and public employees,” she said. “… I think you need to keep that in mind when you’re voting for pensions and education.”

Lewis did not explicitly say whether he would have voted for or against the 6 percent service taxes, but he said he wanted to understand more about how legislators reached the specific service areas they chose to tax. The fundraising component, he agreed, was a mistake that would need fixing. He said transgender bathroom usage in schools could pose significant safety risks to students — something he wouldn’t support, but perhaps, he suggested, they could be excluded from broader business-oriented freedoms. As for home rule, taxes should be decided locally, he said. He firmly came out against charter schools, however, and insisted on continuing to fund public education at higher levels.

“You’ve heard a lot of good people up here tonight say education would be the most important thing each session,” he said. “I have over 30 years of experience in it.”

Neither 11th District House candidate Rob Wiederstein (Democrat) or James Buckmaster (Republican) were present Thursday.