VERSAILLES — The four men seeking the Republican nomination for governor agreed on many key points in a debate Wednesday night, including their support for the coal industry and "right to work" legislation that would end workplace requirements for union membership.
They differed on other points, such as how to resolve the state's massive public pension liability and how quickly to end Kynect, Kentucky's state health insurance exchange. Several of them urged the audience of about 150 to pick a candidate who can beat the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Jack Conway, in November.
"The ideas you're hearing tonight are the right ideas," Louisville businessman Matt Bevin told the crowd. "They're not all coming from the same person in the same way. But the point is, you're not hearing them from the other side of the aisle."
The other GOP candidates are state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Louisville businessman Hal Heiner and former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott. The primary is May 19.
Bevin and Heiner emphasized their private sector backgrounds, while Comer touted his practical experience as a state representative and statewide elected official in Frankfort. Gesturing at Heiner, Comer said, "You can't run TV ads blasting all the people in Frankfort all the time and then expect to pass 'right to work' through the House. You have to have relationships to do that."
On economic issues, all four men oppose an increase in Kentucky's minimum wage, and they called for cuts in state tax rates and state regulation of businesses. They blamed the administration of two-term Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear for hampering the coal industry with slow state permitting and burdening corporations with needless red tape rather than "partnering" with them.
"Our Revenue Department has a national reputation for playing 'Gotcha!'" Heiner said. "It hurts us."
All four men agreed that the billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities in the state's pension systems are the worst fiscal crisis facing the state government.
Heiner, Comer and Bevin said future state government and school teacher hires must be switched from the guaranteed pensions of the defined-benefits plans to the less generous 401(k) model of a defined-contribution plan. Comer also called for independently auditing and privatizing the management of the Kentucky Teachers' Retirement System, saying it "is almost criminal" how underfunded the teacher pensions have become.
Separately, Scott called for legalized casino gambling at racetracks, which he said would create a $350 million-a-year revenue stream for the state that could be dedicated solely to paying down the pension debts.
On the Affordable Care Act, all four candidates said they opposed it, but they split on what they would do with Kynect, the state health insurance exchange established by Beshear. Scott, Bevin and Comer said they would terminate it, allowing Kentuckians to enroll in the federal health insurance exchange if they wanted. Heiner seemed more reluctant to immediately disrupt the existing model and noted that many Kentuckians currently have insurance through it.
Just having health insurance isn't making Kentuckians any healthier, Bevin said. "Study after study has shown that people on Medicaid have worse health outcomes than people without any health insurance whatsoever," Bevin said. "There is no need whatsoever for 25 percent of Kentuckians to be on Medicaid."
The candidates threw a few jabs at each other, but none really drew blood. At the end of the debate, Comer noted that he already has won a statewide election, while Bevin lost last year's Republican U.S. Senate primary to Mitch McConnell, and Bevin's running mate, Jenean Hampton, lost her own election last year to state Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green. "Matt, you and your running mate both lost your last elections by a 2-to-1 margin," Comer said.
"And we ran against people who had been in office for a collective 75 years," Bevin said. "If you want more of that, then I'm not your candidate."