Issue stories

By Paige Hobbs
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
The issues of minimum wage and how to create jobs in Kentucky have played a major role in the race for the U.S. Senate between Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. 
               Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state, is pushing to raise the minimum wage and argues that doing so will create more jobs.
McConnell disagrees and says it is likely that he will become the Senate majority leader and thus able to set the national agenda and help create jobs.       
The minimum wage “has been raised 23 times since 1938. Still, its value today is far lower than it was two generations ago,” William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker in September. “The 1968 minimum wage, to take a high-water mark, was in real 2014 dollars, $10.95 an hour.” Democrats want to raise the wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over three years.
               Grimes repeatedly points out that McConnell has voted against raising the minimum wage 17 times and that she will fight to bring to Kentucky a “living wage.” McConnell has said that he might be for raising the wage at a time when the economy was stronger.
               “Increasing the wage will decrease the number of jobs in Kentucky,” McConnell said in the candidates’ only real debate, Oct. 13 on KET. “You will destroy between half a million and 1 million jobs” nationally by passing the Democratic proposal. “That’s not the way to grow our economy.”
               McConnell’s numbers are from a February report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said “most low-wage workers “would receive higher pay . . .  but some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated . . . and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.”
Grimes replied that “the full story of the CBO report is it would help lift a million—over a million—Americans out of poverty.”
               Grimes cites a report from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “It shows when you increase the wage up to $10.10 an hour, you actually increase our gross domestic product, increase incomes across the commonwealth,” she said. “You actually create over 2,200 good-paying jobs.” These projections are based on a report from January 2014.
The KCEP has criticized the CBO report, saying it “picked an employment impact estimate that is higher than a large and growing body of research says is likely,” and said jobs losses would occur primarily through attrition. It also noted that CBO said “24 million low-wage workers stand to benefit from the proposed increase.”
Throughout the campaign Grimes has criticized McConnell for his comment to The Beattyville Enterprise for saying that bringing jobs to that area “is not my job.” The Enterprise reported that it asked McConnell “what he was going to do to bring jobs to Lee County.”
He replied, “Economic development is a Frankfort issue. That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.” He added that he was fighting to save coal jobs, and talked about that and his other job-creation efforts in a speech in Beattyville that day, which the newspaper did not cover.  
During the KET debate, Grimes said “I’m the only candidate in this race with a jobs plan and that’s how we put Kentucky back to work. . . . That starts by closing the loopholes and ending the tax breaks that Senator Mitch McConnell has given that has shipped our good jobs overseas.”
Fact-checkers have criticized that characterization because McConnell didn’t vote for the tax breaks, but against limiting the standard business deduction for moving expenses to moves within the United States.
In the debate, McConnell responded by calling the Obama administration a “jobs destroyer.”  He said if elected, it is likely that he would be the leader of the Senate majority, and “We’d be voting on things like the Keystone pipeline, which would enable about 20,000 people to go to work quickly.”
The candidates agreed on one thing in the debate, that bringing jobs to Kentucky would be the greatest accomplishment either could have in the next six-year Senate term.

By Cheyene Miller
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
               The U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes has seen the candidates focus on several key issues, including the coal industry, the minimum wage and health care.
               The health-care issue has been almost unique among Senate races in that Kentucky is generally seen as a success story for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In August, Gov. Steve Beshear said 521,000 of Kentucky’s 4.3 million citizens had signed up for health coverage through Kynect, the state’s health insurance marketplace created under the law.
               According to a Gallup-Healthways poll, published in August, Kentucky reduced its percentage of uninsured more than any other state besides Arkansas, and lowered the percentage of uninsured in the state from 20.4 percent to 11.9 percent, thus covering two of every five uninsured Kentuckians.              
In addition to funding the expansion of Medicaid, the law requires Americans to either purchase private health insurance or enroll in some form of government assisted health care like Medicaid; requires insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions and provide 10 elements of coverage in each policy; allows parents to keep their children on their health insurance until they are 26; and requires businesses employing 50 or more full time employees to provide health insurance, a provision that President Obama has suspended for a year.
McConnell says he wants to repeal the law “root and branch,” but has been more lenient toward the idea of keeping Kynect. In the Senate race debate on KET, McConnell suggested that Kynect was merely a website. However, repealing the law could pose issues for the newly insured in Kentucky because private insurance under Kynect uses federal tax credits, and provides free Medicaid coverage to citizens who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
According to Douglas McSwain, a Lexington-based litigation attorney who specializes in constitutional and health-care law, the uprooting of the law would result in drastic changes to Kynect.
               McSwain said repealing the ACA “root and branch” would mean cutting the federal tax subsidies that are essential to Kynect’s survival.
“You take the exchange tax credit away, do you think for a minute that the website is going to stand?” McSwain asked.  “Nobody is going to buy policies.”
At a Kentucky Farm Bureau forum in August McConnell said Congress should have passed laws allowing health insurance to be sold across state lines, limiting malpractice lawsuits and making it easier for businesses to form health-insurance groups.
               McSwain said the law allows formation of such groups, and interstate regulation “is conceivable” but “The problem is we don’t have the infrastructure, regulatory-wise, to do that without having reached a compact or an agreement” among the states.
               A study on the effects of malpractice reform, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, found that Texas, Georgia and South Carolina did not see a significant reduction in the amount of doctor-ordered tests and scans after enacting reforms.  A five-person team of doctors performed the study, collecting data from 1997 through 2011.
               Grimes has only publicly discussed health reform on select occasions, taking a similar strategy to many Democrats in the 2014 midterm election because of the unpopularity of “Obamacare” and its namesake.  When she does mention health care, she talks about fixing and streamlining the law, as she did during the KET debate.
“I will not be a senator that rips that insurance from their hand,” Grimes said in reference to the half a million Kentuckians who’ve gained coverage under Kynect.  She said McConnell was in a “fictional fantasyland.”
Grimes has also talked about supporting an extension of Obama’s “grandfathering” of insurance policies that don’t comply with the law after he was criticized for not keeping his campaign promise that Americans could keep their doctor and health plan if they liked them.
               That controversy and other aspects of the law have led to negative feelings among Kentuckians about Obamacare.  A poll by Marist College for NBC News showed Obamacare had a 33 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval rating among Kentuckians, while Kynect had 29 percent approval and a 22 percent disapproval., while 29 percent of those polled said that they had never heard of Kynect and 21 percent were unsure of how to rate it. 
               At last report, about 80,000 Kentuckians had bought private insurance through Kynect and about 440,000 had used it to get on Medicaid – 320,000 of whom were eligible under the new rules and 120,000 under the what state officials call “old Medicaid.” The federal government pays about 71 percent of “old Medicaid” costs and, until the end of 2016, 100 percent of the newly eligibles’ coverage. In 2017, it will pay 95 percent of the new costs, and fall to the reform law's floor of 90 percent in 2020.

By Ben Tompkins
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications
If you’ve been in front of a television in Kentucky anytime in the past few weeks, you may have seen advertisements throwing around a word that evokes strong emotion from both sides of the political spectrum: amnesty.
               In the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, amnesty as it relates to immigration has been a main topic of debate.
               McConnell voted against the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate and says he’d rather see the issue be dealt with in a series of separate bills. He HeHe He Hhas said comprehensive approaches to big problems can go “terribly awry,” and said at the Kentucky Farm Bureau forum in August, “We need to make changes, more merit-based, to people who can immediately help our country.”
               Grimes, who has been short on specifics for many of her platform stances, has voiced clear support for the bill, which has languished in the Republican-controlled House.
               Political committees supporting McConnell have called the bill “amnesty” because it would create what Grimes and other advocates call a “pathway to citizenship” for people who are in the U.S. illegally.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, amnesty is a pardon granted to a large number of people, or release from guilt or penalty for an offense. Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “A sovereign act of pardon . . . for past acts, granted by a government to all persons (or to certain persons) who have been guilty of . . . generally political offenses.”
The word does not fit the measure Grimes supports, Glenn Kessler wrote in the Fact Checker blog for the Washington Post.
               “If the bill had become law,” Kessler wrote, “undocumented immigrants would have had to jump through all sorts of hoops before they could be considered for legal permanent residence, including registering with the government, having a steady job, paying a fine, paying back taxes, passing background checks, learning English – and then getting in line behind immigrants who had entered the country legally.” Under the provisions of the bill, earned citizenship would be a 13-year process. 
In recent radio and TV commercials, Grimes has attempted to distance herself from the use of the word and asserts it is McConnell who supports amnesty, citing a bill passed in 1986 with his vote, granting conditional amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants. After the ads describe the bill, they say “Mitch is at the heart of everything that’s wrong in Washington.” However, the 1986 bill required steps similar to those in the current bill in order to gain citizenship.
               Thus, both sides are using amnesty as a loaded word, which in one context suggests unconditionally pardoning millions who broke the law. Grimes, however, uses the word in the context that emphasizes an earned pathway to citizenship.
               “You've got a good job, you have a background check, you learn English, you pay your taxes,” Grimes said recently. “That's the American way.”
               Grimes said at a recent a Commerce Lexington event that the issue is important in Kentucky because undocumented workers make up 4 percent of the state’s workforce. That number could not be confirmed; the Grimes campaign did not respond to requests for its source.
A state with a sizeable agricultural economy, Kentucky could stand to benefit from creating an earned pathway to citizenship for agricultural workers, whether through a comprehensive or piecemeal approach.
There is broader support in Congress for measures regarding agricultural workers than many other aspects of the Senate-passed bill. One provision would make it easier for experienced agriculture workers who are in the country illegally to move one step closer to obtaining a green card and legal residency in the U.S. They would have to pay all taxes, a $400 fee, have no convictions for felonies or violent misdemeanors, and have had at least five years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or at least three years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year.

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