Voters can expect state spending — or lack thereof — to be a central theme in the 13th Senate District race in Lexington, which has gone from foregone conclusion to hotly contested.
Democratic state Rep. Kathy Stein, who officially kicked off her campaign for the Senate seat in front of more than two dozen supporters Wednesday morning, sharply criticized the recently-passed two-year budget for failing to do enough for education and health programs.
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She also placed some of the blame on Republican leadership in the Senate, saying the GOP ”clings to a mantra of no new taxes,“ which led it to balk at a cigarette tax increase last session.
”Everyone here knows, though, that these tuition hikes — 9 percent at the University of Kentucky and double-digits at some of our other universities — that is a tax,“ she said.
She said the two-year budget makes a statement: ”We want cheap cigarettes and high tuition,“ she said. ”I'm opposed to that.“
Stein faces Republican Chuck Ellinger II on Nov. 4 in a contest to replace long-time Senator Ernesto Scorsone, who recently accepted an appointment to the bench as Fayette Circuit judge.
Scorsone was set to cruise to a fourth term in the Senate after he didn't draw an opponent. But when Fayette Circuit Judge Sheila Isaac opted to take senior status and left her full-time spot on the bench, Fayette County's election picture changed.
The oft-quoted Stein has represented about half of the more than 80 precincts in the district. But Ellinger has been elected county-wide twice as an at-large member of the city council.
In an interview, Ellinger defended the Republican-led Senate, noting that the final version of the budget avoided a 12 percent cut to higher education called for in Gov. Steve Beshear's original draft of the spending plan. Instead, universities had to absorb a 3 percent reduction.
Ellinger said he'd consider voting for a cigarette tax increase but would want to make sure revenue from such a move went to health programs. Still, he said now isn't the time for other tax increases.
”I think you have to live within your means right now. The budget is about priorities,“ he said.
He added that Republican Senate President David Williams has pledged a key spot on the Senate panel that crafts the budget. Williams made the same promise to Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard before he won a key special election this February.
”Sen. Williams has guaranteed I will be on the appropriations committee. So I will be among those setting priorities,“ Ellinger said. ”With Rep Stein, if she were elected, she won't even be in the room when those decisions are made.“
Stein, meanwhile, said she will defend the values of the district, which she defined as putting a premium on education.
”The budget is a statement of values,“ she said at her backyard rally near the University of Kentucky campus. ”The budget that we passed is very irresponsible because our value statement says that we do not care about the common good of the common people and we do not care much about education.“
Stein was among 21 state representatives to vote against the final version of the executive branch budget bill in April. She previously voted for the House draft of the budget that was predicated on a package of increased revenues, including a 25-cent increase in the cigarette tax.
Beshear also has bemoaned what he called an anemic budget and has repeated his call for a cigarette tax increase of 70 cents per pack.
State general fund revenues for July, however, were 1.9 percent above what they were last year, according to the state budget office. State budget analysts say Kentucky remains on pace for a predicted 2.6 percent increase in revenue this year.