- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Just south of Monroe County, between the Kentucky border and a meandering stream called Chicken Branch, sits 199 acres of Tennessee farmland owned by Republican candidate for governor James Comer.

Across the border in Kentucky is another 250 acre swath of Comer’s land, except this land is worth $122,000 less than its Tennessee counterpart. In fact, all of Comer’s Tennessee land is worth about $1,000 more per acre than his Kentucky land, and Comer says he knows why.

“They have elected a Republican governor who is focused on passing a pro-business agenda,” Comer said. “Tennessee has already done all the things that I want to do in Kentucky.”

While the Republican candidates for governor have slogans like “Putting Kentucky First” and “Fighting to defend our Kentucky values,” they look to Tennessee as a model for their potential administrations. Tennessee has passed laws banning mandatory union membership and limiting how much money people can win in civil lawsuits against corporations. And the state has no personal income tax, aside from a 6 percent tax on earnings from stocks and bonds.

Kentucky’s Democratic governor, who isn’t seeking re-election because of term limits, finds much to ridicule in the GOP contenders’ neighbor-envy.

“I would suggest (all the Republican candidates) move to Tennessee,” Gov. Steve Beshear said. “I think Kentuckians really would rather be Kentuckians because they don’t like Tennessee really well.”

Laws on Tennessee’s books have topped Republican wish-lists for years, but with no success. The state legislature has failed at repeated attempts to reform the state’s tax code. And House Democrats have blocked efforts to pass a so-called “right to work” law that would ban companies from requiring their employees to join a union. So far, 12 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have passed local right-to-work ordinances, according to the Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Labor unions are challenging them in court.

In a state that has had just one Republican governor in the past four decades, Kentucky Republicans naturally look elsewhere for inspiration. That has made anecdotes from Tennessee and, to a lesser extent, Indiana the candidates’ favored currency as they traipse across Kentucky in debates and forums.

“If you’re a sports team, who do you try to replicate? The worst team in the league or the best team in the league?” candidate Matt Bevin said. “The reality is you always try to benchmark against people that are doing a better job at something than you are.”

Economists recognize February 2010 as the national low point for private sector jobs. Since then, Tennessee has added 122,300 more jobs than Kentucky has, according to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. But Kentucky’s unemployment rate is lower, indicating that a higher percentage of people have jobs. And Kentucky workers put in about one hour less and earn about $10 more per week than Tennessee workers.

Republican candidates are betting that voters won’t interpret their zeal for Tennessee as favoring the enemy. The two states have a longstanding rivalry in sports and culture. Earlier this year, Beshear took a swipe at Tennessee officials for their attempts to prevent a Volkswagen plant from unionizing, telling auto manufacturers at a conference in Europe that Kentucky wasn’t like Tennessee.

Hal Heiner pointed out that his campaign slogan is “Putting Kentucky First.” But he says the state lags Tennessee in job recruitment. Heiner develops business parks and helps recruit companies to fill them. He said he has seen chief executives of Kentucky-based companies expand their businesses in other states.

“Quite frankly, our platforms in Kentucky when it comes to taxation, the way our regulatory process is in Kentucky and really our credit rating scares them to death,” he said.

Moody’s rates Kentucky’s general fund credit as “Aa3,” its fourth highest rating that means “high quality and very low credit risk.” Fitch and Standard & Poor’s both rate Kentucky as A+, meaning the state has a strong chance of meeting its obligations but would be more susceptible to an economic slowdown. Two agencies rate Tennessee’s credit at the highest level possible, AAA. A third ranks them at AA.

Republican candidate Will T. Scott doesn’t buy the Tennessee hype. He said he does not endorse a right-to-work law at the state level but supports letting county governments decide. Plus, he noted the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would never pass the law.

“Why are they running on something they can’t do,” Scott said. “I love Kentucky, and we beat Tennessee in every category.”

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