SOMERSET — U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers said Saturday he was disappointed Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul had not expressed support for a task force Rogers created to fight drugs in his district, where substance abuse has been described as an epidemic.
The agency, called Operation UNITE, was started in 2003 by Rogers, a Republican who has represented the 5th District in Eastern and southern Kentucky for three decades.
The task force gets most of its money from federal sources.
Earlier in the campaign, Paul did not directly answer a local official's question on whether he supported Operation UNITE, but said he would "rather see drug abuse and dependency treated and paid for at the local level."
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More recently, a county sheriff said Paul pledged not to try to cut the program's funding, but Paul's campaign did not confirm that to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
At a Republican campaign event in Somerset on Saturday, Rogers said he agrees with Paul on many things, but not UNITE.
"We differ on that issue, obviously, a bunch," Rogers said.
He will try to explain to Paul how important Operation UNITE is in fighting drug abuse in Eastern and southern Kentucky, he said.
"He's one I'll have to make a sales pitch to," Rogers said.
Rogers' district includes some of the most economically disadvantaged counties in the nation. It faces a tide of drug abuse — particularly involving prescription pills — that fuels crime and drives up overdose deaths.
"It's been disastrous to all our families," Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford said Saturday.
Local officials say they simply don't have the resources to deal with the problem alone.
Rogers said his move to start UNITE was a recognition that the drug problem was bigger than local police and agencies could handle. Many sheriffs in the district have only a few officers, for instance, he said.
"There has to be federal and state funds," Rogers said.
Rogers earmarks money in the federal budget to pay for UNITE.
Paul has criticized earmarks as one reason federal spending has put the country deep in debt. He said he would not use earmarks, but rather would work for money for Kentucky programs through committee channels.
UNITE received $4 million in federal funds in its most recent budget and $2 million from the state, its director, Karen Engle, said recently.
The task force takes a three-pronged approach, providing money for drug investigations, substance-abuse treatment and drug education in a 29-county area.
Since 2003, its detectives have arrested more than 3,500 people and seized more than 98,000 prescription pills diverted to drug trafficking. The task force has provided vouchers for more than 1,900 people to get substance-abuse treatment, and thousands of young people have taken part in anti-drug programs sponsored by UNITE.
The issue with UNITE in the U.S. Senate race surfaced at a statewide convention of local officials in July, when Magoffin County Judge-Executive Charles Hardin asked Paul if he supported UNITE.
In response, Paul said he thinks "issues like drug use and abuse are best dealt with at the local level."
At the time, he said that if elected he would work to cut federal taxes so there could be more money at the local level to deal with issues.
When tax money goes to the federal government, he said, much is wasted.
"And so I think I would rather see drug abuse and dependency treated and paid for at the local level," Paul said in July.
That is part of Paul's overall philosophy that local control and solutions are better than federal involvement.
But many local officials took Paul's statement to mean he would cut federal funding for drug enforcement and treatment programs, Hardin said later.
However, Paul's campaign manager said Paul has never said there would be no federal involvement in combating drugs.
After speaking to a crowd of several hundred at the Pulaski County Republican Party picnic in Somerset on Saturday, Paul said he and Rogers did not talk about UNITE, but seem to agree on most things. Paul said no one had properly presented his position on UNITE, but he did not explain that position as he walked to his campaign bus after the speech on Saturday to travel to another event.
Paul said no one had ever asked him about UNITE except reporters.
Rutherford, however, said many people have an interest in the issue.
"You hear it all the time," he said.
People "just don't think that he's (Paul) realistic" in calling for local governments to foot the bill for fighting drugs, Rutherford said.
Rogers said he thinks Paul will carry the 5th District comfortably.
"Except for UNITE, you know, he's on track with our people's beliefs," Rogers said.
In his speech, Rogers blasted the big-government agenda of President Barack Obama, but did not mention Paul by name.
Instead, he encouraged people to vote a straight Republican ticket.