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Candidates for 1st District Congressional Seat Converge on Farm Bureau Forum

John Null/WKMS

Over the weekend, five of the six candidates running to succeed retiring Congressman Ed Whitfield as the next Representative of Kentucky’s 1st Congressional District took part in a Kentucky Farm Bureau forum in Murray.

The two-hour forum focused on issues germane to the Farm Bureau’s legislative agenda, including Farm Bill funding, Environmental Protection Agency regulations and genetically-modified foods. After a round of opening statements punctuated by former state agriculture commissioner James Comer touting his hot-off-the-presses National Rifle Association endorsement, the candidates got down to business with the moderator’s first question, involving securing federal funding for farmers.

Hickman County Attorney Jason Batts said passing a Farm Bill and strengthening crop insurance is essential to the survival of family farms, but the Republican said reforms are needed and that the bill should be split in two.

“One bill that deals with food and one bill that deals with farms," Batts said. "Mixing the bills together when you’ve got a food bill that’s 80 percent of the bill is not only, I think, hard to understand for those of us in small town rural America, it doesn’t make good public policy.”

Comer said he would like to see the omnibus bill split in two, but didn’t think the votes would be there for it in a form that doesn’t include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He said maintaining our food supply is an issue of national security and that he would be a strong voice for agriculture in Washington.

“If you keep up with Congress, it’s hard sometimes for a freshman to stand out, but with my agriculture background, I believe I’ll automatically stand out being one of the few former commissioners of agriculture who’s ever served in Congress, much less a full-time farmer," Comer said.

Whitfield’s longtime district director and Republican candidate Michael Pape put forth the idea that passing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget would solve most or all federal spending problems.

“Let me tell you, people in my own party, I’m very disappointed with for passing these omnibus bills," Pape said. "We should never vote for omnibus bills anymore, because it’s the worst way to take care of this country’s finances and that fundamental principle alone affects everything that we’re talking about here tonight and helping farm families succeed and young people get into farming.”

Army veteran and former tobacco farmer Sam Gaskins was the lone Democrat on stage at the Curris Center. The other Democrat in the race, Paducah attorney Tom Osborne, skipped the forum to go on spring break with his family. Gaskins spent much of the night echoing the Republican candidates’ stances on the issues, including when the discussion shifted to the effect Environmental Protection Agency policies are having on Kentucky’s farms.

“I guess I’m an oddball when it comes to a Democrat ‘cause I have to agree that the EPA has slung their long arm way too far," Gaskins said.

Comer said the federal government should have a very limited role in regulating rivers and streams and praised recent legislation that founded the Kentucky Water Resources Board which will perform that task at the state level.

“That’s a big deal because we don’t want EPA and especially the Corps of Engineers telling us where we can plant and where we can draw water to irrigate our crops," Comer said. "It’s a huge problem."

Batts said the EPA has been in the practice of legislating, rather than regulating, and called for it to be heavily defunded.

“Down to only the most essential amount of funding," Batts said. "We see that the agency has grown beyond reproach and that is part of what’s allowing the agency to attack our small family farms.”

Pape said if elected he would lead an effort to implement oversight on the EPA. He said the current Congress hasn’t had the will to cut the agency’s budget.

“If we don’t act soon, our farms, our coal mines, everything is in jeopardy, even our showers, because they’ll be regulating the drips of water in your shower because that’s where two drops of water meet," Pape said.

Longshot Republican candidate Miles Caughey also invoked the bathroom when talking about the EPA.

“Let me just add, they’re regulating my toilet right now, so I gotta do two flushes cause I’m full of it. 1.3 gallons, it’s already happened, brothers and sisters," Caughey said.

There haven’t been any polls conducted in the race to identify a frontrunner, but a quarterly fundraising report is due at the end of this week. Among Republicans, Pape led Comer narrowly in the last filing.

Kentucky’s primary will take place May 17.

John Null is the host and creator of Left of the Dial. From 2013-2016, he also served as a reporter in the WKMS newsroom.
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