FRANKFORT — The two men in the May 19 Republican primary election for state agriculture commissioner are competitors who have much in common and promise to remain friends after the election.
Richard Heath of Mayfield and Ryan Quarles of Georgetown are well-educated state representatives familiar with farming. Both bristle at what they say are excessive regulations for farms imposed by President Barack Obama's administration, especially regarding federal regulations on bodies of water and emissions from farm machinery.
Both agree the Kentucky Proud program touting the state's various farm products should be expanded, and the state should continue to push for hemp production. And both admire the way outgoing Agriculture Commissioner James Comer runs the agriculture department and think he should be Kentucky's next governor.
Still, the two candidates do have their differences.
A major issue between Heath and Quarles is a vote this year in the state legislature on stabilizing the Road Fund, which is used to build and maintain roads.
Lawmakers agreed to effectively halt a scheduled 5.1-cent-a-gallon decrease in the state gas tax because it would have meant a $150 million cut to the road fund on top of a $129 million cut from a similar decline in January.
Kentucky's gas tax is tied to the wholesale price of fuel. The tax was 26.2 cents a gallon. It had been scheduled to fall to 22.1 cents a gallon April 1. Instead, lawmakers agreed to drop it to 26 cents a gallon and freeze it so it could never fall below that.
Heath voted for the measure. He said it was needed to keep Kentucky highways in good shape and claimed his support for it puts his campaign on good terms with many county officials, who stood to lose millions of dollars from the local road-repair budgets.
"That vote was a two-edged sword," said Heath. "You can praise or criticize someone on that issue. I just know several county officials of both parties from across the state have thanked me for supporting it and not letting our roads go to pieces."
Quarles voted against the legislation, contending it amounted to a tax increase.
Quarles said he backed a proposal by House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-James town, to freeze Kentucky's gas tax at a level that would still stabilize road budgets for local governments. Hoover's proposal did not keep the state portion of Kentucky's gas tax from declining, keeping extra dollars in consumers' pockets.
In their campaigns, both Heath, 59, and Quarles, 31, have raised a substantial amount of money, but Quarles has a sizeable lead.
In their latest finance reports, Quarles, a lawyer and farmer, reported raising $105,884 for the election, compared to Heath's $61,376.
Quarles' contributions came from throughout the state. Most of Heath's were raised in his home area of far Western Kentucky.
Heading into the final weeks of the campaign, Heath, who owns a building materials company, had a cash balance of $49,703 and Quarles had $90,495.
Another plus for Quarles is the endorsement of two Republican members of Congress &mdash: Andy Barr of Lexington and Brett Guthrie of Bowling Green.
On the campaign trail, Quarles preaches four priorities: promote Kentucky agriculture internationally, continue the Ag in the Classroom program to teach students where their food comes from, expand the Kentucky Proud marketing program, and protest Obama's farm regulations.
Heath agrees, especially with "the federal overreach on our farms, especially on water regulations."
Heath said he wanted to build on Comer's successes in the agriculture department, "to make sure it doesn't return to the way he found it."
That was an apparent reference to former Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who was sentenced to prison for misusing state employees and resources.
In a debate on Kentucky Educational Television this month, the candidates differed somewhat on the idea of growing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
Heath said that he did not yet support medical marijuana and that any farmer growing cannabis for medications would have to be strictly regulated and monitored.
Quarles said doctors and scientists would need to determine the effectiveness of medical marijuana. But he said there was great potential for Kentucky to become a leader in research and development of medicines derived from cannabis.
Both men have pledged to support the Republican gubernatorial nominee in the fall.
The winner in the ag commissioner race faces Democrat Jean-Marie Lawson Spann, host of a weekly radio show about farm news in Kentucky, in the November general election. She is unopposed in the Democratic primary election.