At lieutenant governor's forum, Farmer defends expenditures

GOP Lieutenant Governor candidates also discuss tax reform plans

jcheves@herald-leader.comMay 3, 2011 

Much of the discussion Monday among the three Republican candidates for lieutenant governor focused on whether one of them, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, should be more careful with public money.

Responding to questions during a forum on Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Tonight, Farmer, 41, defended his office's purchase of dozens of new vehicles, his $10,000 trip to a Caribbean resort and thousands of dollars he spent at hotels during the Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament and Kentucky State Fair to avoid driving home at night to Frankfort.

Farmer is the running mate of state Senate President David Williams in the May 17 primary.

Concerning the hotel bills, Farmer's opponents — state Rep. Mike Harmon of Danville and 30-year Navy veteran Bill Vermillion Jr. — said they would drive an hour or less rather than bill the taxpayers.

"It seems like being so close, I probably would drive back and forth," said Harmon, 44, the running mate of Louisville businessman Phil Moffett.

"I have been other places where I've been working 25, 30 miles from my home, and I would not go to a hotel and stay. I would come home," said Vermillion, 50, the running mate of Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw.

Replying to another question, Farmer said he erred by initially not taking six days of furlough this fiscal year, as are most state workers and all the other constitutional officers, including Gov. Steve Beshear. After the Herald-Leader reported last month that Farmer was keeping all of his $110,346 salary, he apologized to state workers and said he would donate six days' pay to charities.

"What people need to understand is that, as a constitutional officer, I really, I do not think I was required to do that," Farmer said on Monday's show. "So they didn't automatically take the pay from my check. I didn't know that everyone else already went ahead and made their checks payable back."

Vermillion and Harmon said they would have participated in the furlough and given at least part of their furlough pay to charity.

Asked by show host Bill Goodman what Kentucky's lieutenant governor does, Harmon said, "Right now, primarily, the lieutenant governor waits to see if anything happens to the governor." Later, Vermillion said he and his wife were surprised to discover how large the lieutenant governor's salary is.

However, the men said their running mates assure them they will play active roles if elected. Vermillion, a teacher, said he would advise Holsclaw on education. Farmer said he would advise Williams on economic development and agriculture. Harmon said he could help Moffett steer his agenda through the General Assembly.

All three candidates said Kentucky needs to overhaul its tax code to attract employers. Harmon and Vermillion said they would eliminate income taxes in favor of higher and broader sales taxes. Harmon said the sales tax might rise from the current 6 percent to 7.2 percent; Vermillion suggested 7.5 percent.

Farmer said he doesn't have a specific tax plan. But he supports Williams' idea of creating a task force to study tax reform, "bringing in professionals, you know, leading economists, professionals that can come in with a plan that would make Kentucky competitive, whatever that is."

Each man said he would support the Republican nominee against Beshear, the Democratic incumbent, in the fall. But Harmon said a "discontented" Williams has warned him that "he wouldn't necessarily support us, and he might work against us."

"At the UK-Louisville game, he actually pulled me closer and said, 'You better quit doing what you're doing or else I guarantee you that if you win the primary, we'll make sure you don't win the general election,'" Harmon said.

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