- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky’s Republican primary for governor heated up during a debate Wednesday when Hal Heiner was confronted by two rivals who called on him to repudiate attack ads bankrolled by an outside group supporting Heiner’s campaign.

During the debate laden with discussions on issues including health care and the local-option sales tax, candidates James Comer and Matt Bevin asked Heiner to disavow ads that shook up what had mostly been a collegial four-way GOP primary.

Heiner, a businessman and former Louisville metro councilman, responded that he had nothing to do with the ads by a political action committee supporting him.

“Those are not my ads,” Heiner said afterward. “I want to be judged based on what I say and based on what we put out in our campaign.”

Bevin and Comer sounded unsatisfied. Bevin said the ad against him rehashed “old lies” that first surfaced in his failed run against now-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year’s GOP Senate primary.

“Will you publicly repudiate those, if you had nothing to do with it?” Bevin asked Heiner in his closing remarks. “You have a chance in front of everybody right now to make that clear.”

The anti-Bevin ad in part repeated a claim that a company he owned fell behind in paying its taxes. Bevin has noted the company’s tax problems occurred before he took over and he turned the company around and repaid all past-due taxes.

The ad against Comer focuses partly on farm subsidies he received for his farming operations in southern Kentucky.

Comer, the state’s agriculture commissioner, shot back by saying Heiner had received more in farm subsidies on a per-acre basis for his small farm than Comer did for his large-scale farm.

“Maybe that’s going to be his leadership style,” Comer said of Heiner’s unwillingness to speak out against the ads. “I think you can tell a lot about a governor by who he surrounds himself with.”

The fourth Republican candidate, former state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, drew laughs from the crowd by saying he’s staying out of that fight.

The anti-Comer ad also claims that as a state lawmaker Comer voted for a bill that increased legislative pensions.

Comer acknowledged to reporters that backing the pension measure a decade ago “was clearly a bad vote.” Comer said that if elected governor, he would push for an opt-out clause in legislative pensions.

“I’ll be the first person, once I sign that bill into law, to opt out of my legislative pension,” he said.

The attack ads and sharp exchanges at the debate could signal the start of a more bare-knuckled tone ahead of the state’s May 19 primary. State Attorney General Jack Conway is the favorite in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Current two-term Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, is term limited.

Meanwhile, three of the GOP candidates said they would dismantle kynect, the state-run health exchange created as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. More than a half-million people have signed up for health insurance through kynect, but most have enrolled in Medicaid. So far, the federal government has picked up the entire cost of the Medicaid expansion. Beginning in 2017, Kentucky taxpayers will start paying part of the bill.

“If you elect me to be governor, I will dismantle the kynect program after we transition people to the federal exchange,” said Bevin, a Louisville businessman.

Comer and Scott also said they would pull the plug on the state-based health exchange.

Heiner criticized the health care law and said the Medicaid expansion is financially unsustainable but stopped short of calling for the end of kynect.

The candidates were divided on whether to give communities the option to temporarily impose higher sales taxes on themselves to pay for construction projects.

In backing Scott the proposal, Scott said it would allow communities to proceed with projects to help local economies.

Bevin said he opposes the local-option sales tax. Heiner said he opposes it as an “add-on” tax, but said it “has possibility” as part of comprehensive changes to the state’s tax code.

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