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Taxes, minimum wage top issues in November

- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The biggest political fallout from the just-ended legislative session won't be about what lawmakers did, but what they did not do.

House and Senate leaders said this week that a pair of tax hikes and a minimum wage increase - all of which failed to become law - will play major roles in this fall's pivotal races for the Kentucky legislature, one of just six states where Democrats and Republicans share control of state government.

Republicans have a solid majority in the state Senate. And in the House, which Democrats have controlled since 1922, Republicans need just five seats to win a majority.

"The best chance we've ever had," Republican Senate floor leader Damon Thayer said. "We've been steadily closing the gap over the last couple of cycles and I think we're well positioned."

The reason for Thayer's confidence is taxes. House Democrats approved two tax increases this session: A 1.5 cents-per-gallon gas tax increase and an increase on hotel room taxes in Lexington to pay for renovations at Rupp Arena.

Senate Republicans blocked both tax increases and neither became law. But that won't stop Republicans from using the increases as an example of why they think Republicans should control the House.

"When (voters) know you can do these things instead of passing taxes, I think the state of Kentucky and the electorate responds very well to that," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.

Democrats say they are not worried. As House Speaker Greg Stumbo said, "I've never seen anybody beat over a tax that didn't pass."

Plus, Democrats have their own trump card: the minimum wage. The first bill filed in the House - reserved for Democrats' top priority - would have gradually increased the state minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016. A poll in February found 61 percent of Kentucky voters supported the increase.

House Democrats passed the minimum wage bill in February. It never got a vote in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

"People want to see problems solved for people in minimum wage jobs," Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo said. "When they are not addressed, then the party that didn't address them is going to have to answer the charges of why they weren't addressed."

University of Kentucky political science professor Steven Voss said the gas tax is something "that potentially you could publicize and target a few legislators who seem to have strayed from their district." But he noted that tax cuts and the minimum wage have been part of partisan platforms for decades, questioning if either would be enough to impact the elections.

"I don't know that anybody really shook things up enough that it's changed the landscape in terms of the statehouse races," he said. "It's true that most people support raising the minimum wage, but it's also not a very intense issue."

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