Saturday, January 25, 2003

Candidates for governor shy from raising Ky. taxes

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

LOUISVILLE - Republicans Ernie Fletcher and Rebecca Jackson said Friday they would veto a tax increase if elected governor, taking their anti-tax stance a step beyond several other candidates.

Republican Steve Nunn and Democrat Jody Richards said circumstances at the time the budget bill reached them would dictate their decisions.

Appearing at a forum sponsored by the Kentucky Press Association, the candidates spoke in unison in opposing higher taxes, reining in state spending and restoring integrity to the governor's office - a reference to the scandal that embroiled Gov. Paul Patton, who admitted last year to an extramarital affair.

Attorney General Ben Chandler, a Democrat, delivered opening remarks at the forum but left before a question-and-answer period.

The state's budget woes served as a backdrop to the gathering. Mr. Patton has said he expects to balance the books this fiscal year, which ends June 30, but that the state would face a nearly $400 million shortfall the following year at current rates of revenue and spending.

The candidates were asked if they would use their veto power to remove a cigarette tax increase, or any other tax increase, from the budget bill.

Mr. Fletcher claimed Kentucky ranks 12th nationally and second among bordering states in the percentage of personal income that goes to taxes. He said that shows the level of taxation is not causing the shortfall.

"I would veto a bill that they send to me with tax increases," said Mr. Fletcher, a congressman from Lexington.

Ms. Jackson, former Jefferson County judge-executive, said she would not include a tax increase in any budget she submitted to the General Assembly. If lawmakers passed a budget with a higher tax, "then I would have to seek out that line item and say no."

Mr. Richards said he probably would veto a higher cigarette tax.

Mr. Nunn said it was highly improbable a higher cigarette tax would reach his desk as governor given current sentiment in the legislature.

Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, expected to announce next week whether he will run for governor, was the only one to raise the prospect of increasing taxes.

Given the state's needs in social services and education, Mr. Henry said "it's irresponsible for anybody to stand up and say, `No taxes.'"

The prospect of legalizing casino gambling as a way to raise additional revenue got a generally cold reception among the candidates.

Ms. Jackson and Mr. Richards said they opposed expanded gambling. Fletcher said he couldn't envision a scenario in which he would support it.

Mr. Nunn, a state representative from Glasgow, has opposed expanded gambling in the past. But he said the issue deserves serious consideration given his opposition to higher taxes and the prospect of deep cuts in education and social services.

One way to get state spending under control, Mr. Nunn said, would be greater oversight of the state's system of contracting with private companies to provide services.

Mr. Richards, speaker of the Kentucky House, said the state needs comprehensive tax reform to fix inequities in the system.

"The working poor are paying too much, and we need to reform our tax system so that we do not hit them inordinately," he said.

Ms. Jackson said the state needs to do more to keep its most talented young people, who leave to attend college or find jobs. "We are losing our young people. They are bleeding out of our state."

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