U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, and Elisabeth Jensen, his Democratic challenger, laid out stark differences in their ideologies Monday night during a televised appearance on KET's Kentucky Tonight.
Jensen told host Bill Goodman that she supported a proposed raise in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank banking reform law. Barr said he opposed all of those, preferring free-market solutions rather than government intervention.
The election is Nov. 4. Barr is finishing his first term representing Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.
Barr and Jensen spent the first part of the show debating the Affordable Care Act, which has — through Kentucky's Kynect — provided health insurance for 521,000 Kentuckians.
Barr said the law should be repealed because it is destroying patient choice, forcing insurance policy cancellations and driving up premiums, creating a drag on the national economy. Eighty percent of Kentuckians who got coverage under Kynect did so through expanded Medicaid, which the state government will struggle to pay for as federal subsidies recede in coming years, he said.
"This has been a total disaster. It's killing jobs," Barr said.
Prodded by Goodman, Barr said he would offer tax breaks and federal subsidies for high-deductible policies to Kentuckians who lose insurance coverage if the Affordable Care Act is eliminated by the next Congress. He seemed to draw a distinction between the controversial federal law and the state's more popular Kynect.
"Kynect is a website," Barr said.
"Well, no, it's part of the Affordable Care Act," Goodman replied. "It's not just a website. The website is the mechanics of the way you get to the (health insurance) exchange."
Jensen, who founded and runs an educational nonprofit organization in Lexington, said she explored the Kynect website and found many affordable options for her own office.
"It's time to stop fighting. It's not gonna get repealed," she said. "We have too many people enrolled in too many states across the country. We need to start moving forward now to the next step. We need to start looking more at the cost of health care, we need to start looking more at the transparency of health care."
The candidates also sparred on bank reform in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown and recession. Barr, a member of the House Financial Services Committee who has taken several hundred thousand dollars in campaign donations from the financial sector, said the Dodd-Frank law was overly burdensome and stifled job creation. Jensen said the law wasn't perfect, but it protected consumers from unwise and unsavory banking practices, as intended.
When Goodman asked Barr whether he would support a federal cap on the interest rates payday lenders charge, Barr did not answer directly but suggested that looser banking regulations would make banks healthier and create "more transparent forms of credit" for borrowers. Jensen said Barr, who has taken donations from payday lenders, "is going to bat" for the industry by making sure they avoid federal regulation.
As for the donations to his campaign from the financial sector, Barr told Goodman, "They know I'm free enterprise. They know I'm for limited government."
Barr and Jensen found rare agreement on the subject of the scourge of heroin addiction facing Kentucky. They both said the state needed more beds in addiction-treatment programs. Jensen noted that the Affordable Care Act, which Barr would repeal, provides addiction treatment to thousands of poor and working-class Kentuckians who previously could not afford it.
Jensen said she supported a higher minimum wage because that would put money in the hands of the worst-paid workers, allowing them to spend in their communities and creating more jobs. The economy is stagnant in large part because few Americans can afford to spend much, she said.
"The 13 states that have increased their minimum wage, since the start of the year, they have all averaged job growth above the states that have not raised the minimum wage," Jensen said.
Barr said he agreed that wages should be higher, but he blamed an economy hurt by "the war on coal," "Obamacare" and overly strong bank regulations.
"So rather than increase the cost of hiring, I think it's an argument in favor of doing away with a lot of the bad policies in Washington that squeeze workers' wages," Barr said.