With two weeks to go before the Nov. 8 general election, the three candidates for Kentucky's second-highest political office — lieutenant governor — appeared in their first and only debate Monday night before a statewide television audience.
Democrat Jerry Abramson, Republican Richie Farmer and independent Dea Riley argued issues ranging from taxes to coal but maintained a mostly civil tone throughout the hourlong debate on Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Tonight.
The sharpest disagreement came when host Bill Goodman asked the candidates their opinions on the need for tax reform.
Abramson, who is on the ticket with Gov. Steve Beshear, said that now, with a fragile economy, is not the time to change Kentucky's tax code and that Beshear has told Abramson he would look at tax reform if the economy improves.
Abramson maintained that the tax plan of Republican gubernatorial nominee David Williams, who is president of the state Senate, and Farmer to do away with corporate and personal income taxes would take up 43 percent of the state budget.
To offset that, the state's 6 percent sales tax would have to jump to 14 percent, said Abramson. "That's really not a way to go."
Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the Williams-Farmer campaign, said after the debate that Beshear and Abramson are "making up numbers to cover up the fact that they have no agenda and no plan for tax reform. They are just trying to scare voters."
The GOP plan, Jennings said, is to move away from taxes on productivity to taxes on consumption and set up a panel of independent experts to come up with a fair tax code.
During the debate, Farmer said the GOP plan would create an environment to attract more businesses to Kentucky.
Independent candidate Riley, a Frankfort marketing consultant who is Lexington attorney Gatewood Galbraith's running mate, called Kentucky's tax system unfair and said economic development was the answer to creating jobs.
The lieutenant governor candidates were asked whether there is a war on coal and their opinion of mountaintop removal, a controversial method of extracting coal.
Abramson noted that Beshear had filed suit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency for excessive regulations.
Farmer also railed against federal mining regulations but said a governor cannot be pro-coal and for Democratic President Barack Obama.
Riley was the only candidate who spoke against mountaintop-removal mining.
Abramson said that Beshear had not issued a new mountaintop-removal permit during his term and that "there has to be a balance" between removing coal and protecting the environment.
Another controversial issue during the debate was voter registration rights for convicted felons.
Farmer and Riley said they opposed restoring such rights to people who committed violent crimes.
Abramson used most of his time to say Beshear had restored the rights of some convicted felons but had pardoned no one. The restoration of rights came after Beshear checked with prosecutors, Abramson said.
On education, Abramson said he favored expanding the state's community college system, and Riley touted Galbraith's plan to give every high school graduate a $5,000 voucher for higher education.
Farmer and Abramson agreed that the state was not doing enough to promote tourist attractions such as Lake Cumberland, but Abramson said that was due to insufficient state funds.
Riley said she could improve state marketing of parks with her personal expertise. She praised Farmer for his work in promoting Kentucky farm products.
All three said their primary role as lieutenant governor would be economic development.
Throughout the debate, Abramson noted at least three times that he is married. Farmer mentioned his three sons but not that he is facing a divorce trial Nov. 22. Riley said her role as a mother, especially raising a disabled daughter, has been one of her major accomplishments.
Asked to name a favorite politician, Farmer said the late Gov. Louie Nunn, Abramson mentioned former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Wendell Ford, and Riley named Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Clay.
The three candidates for governor — Beshear, Williams and Galbraith — are to appear with Goodman in their second and final debate on KET at 8 p.m. next Monday. They debated earlier this month at Eastern Kentucky University.