In an unlikely first public skirmish of the 2015 Republican primary for governor, Hal Heiner's campaign this week questioned opponent James Comer's commitment to opposing an increase in the minimum wage.
Comer, who made his bid official this week with an announcement in his hometown of Tompkinsville, indicated at a news conference after the event that he is opposed to raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour even though a majority of Kentuckians favor the proposal.
"We have to look at everything, but right now it's my ideology that the market sets the wage rate for the state and I am compassionate for low-wage working middle-class people," Comer said.
Comer acknowledged that "we all agree you can't live on $7.50 an hour," but he said he would rather grow the economy with more high-paying jobs and revisit the state's incentive programs to ensure that businesses not paying a "living wage" don't get tax incentives.
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In response, Heiner campaign manager Joe Burgan highlighted for reporters on Wednesday that Comer voted twice to raise the minimum wage as a state lawmaker in 2007.
"Has his ideology changed since 07?" Burgan wrote.
Comer, who was elected Kentucky's commissioner of agriculture in 2011, voted for minimum wage legislation that was passed by the House 89-10 in February 2007.
The House voted again on the proposal in March, raising the wage incrementally over the following two years, and Comer joined 92 others in voting for the bill. Five members voted against it, and two didn't vote.
After the Republican-led state Senate passed the measure 33-1 in late March, the new wage law went into effect in June 2007, raising the wage from $5.15 an hour to $5.85.
On July 1, 2008, that figure increased to $6.55, and one year later, it was raised to $7.25.
The federal minimum wage also was raised to $7.25, taking effect a few weeks after Kentucky's reached that level in 2009.
Holly Harris VonLuehrte, Comer's senior adviser, said Thursday that at the time Comer voted to raise the wage, Kentucky's "minimum wage was one of the lowest in the country at $5 and change, and there was almost no objection from the business community to bringing Kentucky in line with other states."
"It was absolutely the right vote at the time, and it received overwhelming support from the GOP House caucus," VonLuehrte said. "But it doesn't surprise me that the multi-millionaire Hal Heiner, who doesn't understand the challenges Kentucky families face, would object to that."
In a statement provided by Burgan, Heiner said he opposes "an increase in the minimum wage because it will eliminate entry-level jobs, making it even harder for job seekers to find work."
"An increase will additionally hurt our ability to compete for jobs and economic growth with surrounding states," Heiner said.
The most recent Bluegrass Poll, released Aug. 31, found that 55 percent of Kentuckians think the minimum wage should be increased, compared to 37 percent who are opposed and 8 percent who aren't sure.
Attorney General Jack Conway, the only Democrat who has announced a bid for governor next year, has voiced support for raising the minimum wage.