Will rural voters show up in the 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial election?
As political campaigns and pundits ask that question, Kentucky's electric cooperatives have been working to make sure the answer is a resounding "yes."
Because co-ops are owned, operated and were built by the very people we serve, we are dedicated to improving Kentucky's quality of life and advocating for issues that affect our ability to deliver safe, reliable and affordable electricity.
That's the energy behind the non-partisan Co-ops Vote campaign. Kentucky's off-year elections typically draw poor voter turnout, especially compared with presidential election years. Four years ago, Kentucky's statewide voter turnout was only 30.6 percent, and the counties with the lowest turnout were in rural areas. In 2015, three rural Kentucky counties failed to reach even 20 percent voter turnout.
We are grateful to the gubernatorial candidates, Gov. Matt Bevin and Attorney General Andy Beshear, for replying to our questions about key issues facing rural Kentucky, the commonwealth's energy future, economic development and workforce development. Following are a few of their answers.
What is your vision for the energy future of Kentucky?
Bevin: Our energy future must be intertwined with my vision that Kentucky will become the engineering and manufacturing hub of excellence in the United States. We are in the process of fulfilling that vision precisely because of Kentucky's low energy prices. Kentucky is second in the entire nation in aerospace exports. Automotive and pharmaceuticals are also major export categories for our commonwealth. In fact, we broke our all-time record as a state with $31.76 billion in international exports in 2018. Maintaining this growth is dependent on affordable, safe, reliable and environmentally responsible energy production.
Beshear: Kentucky needs an all-of-the-above approach to energy. One of the biggest challenges working families face, especially in eastern Kentucky, is that their energy bills go up year after year, while good jobs are hard to find and wages remain flat. Kentucky families shouldn't have to choose between putting food on the table and keeping the lights on. As attorney general, my office has opposed dozens of utility bill hikes and helped save Kentucky families nearly $1.6 billion. I will continue to advocate for consumers, affordable utility costs and smart energy policy as governor.
No Kentuckian currently pays sales tax on their residential electric use. Can Kentucky's electric cooperatives count on your support to help them serve struggling families and keep residential electric sales exempt from a sales tax?
Beshear: Tax reform in Kentucky shouldn't burden working families who are already struggling just to get by. My focus will be on closing sales tax loopholes for purchases of things like private jets and luxury yachts. Additionally, we have to stand up for consumers and hold utility companies accountable. Monthly energy bills should be reasonable and affordable, not the skyrocketing rates we have seen in many parts of Kentucky.
Bevin: I do not support taxing utilities that people need.
Electric cooperatives employ more than 3,000 people across the commonwealth. What is your plan to ensure that Kentucky has an educated and prepared workforce for the future?
Beshear: Kentucky has the talent and the people, but Governor Bevin has failed to give our workforce the tools they need to compete in a global economy. Instead of cutting community colleges, I will expand job training programs in partnership with organized labor and strengthen career readiness in schools. We should also be fully funding public education, including community colleges and technical schools. Businesses will follow the workers, and I'll always prioritize making sure Kentuckians have the skills they need to earn a good living for their families.
Bevin: Again, I have to refer you to my record. Our per pupil education expenditures were the highest in Kentucky history in our most recent budget. Meanwhile, programs like our Work Ready Skills Initiative, our Registered Apprentice Program, our Work Ready Scholarship and our Work Matters Task Report (which was recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor) represent a multimillion-dollar investment in Kentucky's workers. These programs, along with public/private partnerships that are training world-class graduates in advanced manufacturing, are in place to ensure that Kentuckians have the skills demanded by job creators for 2019 and well into the future.
Because co-ops serve 117 of Kentucky's 120 counties, we are in a unique position to champion statewide voter participation. All across the commonwealth, co-ops are reminding their local consumer-members that the best way for their concerns to be noticed by elected leaders is by showing up at the ballot box.
Chris Perry is president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives, the association of Kentucky's 26 electric cooperatives that serve more than 1.5 million people -- about 35% of the state's population -- in 117 of Kentucky's 120 counties.