Kentucky Tonight hosted the first in a series of discussions about the 2023 primary elections as Renee Shaw spoke with candidates running for Kentucky Treasurer and Commissioner of Agriculture.
Republicans for Kentucky Treasurer
Andrew Cooperrider is a Lexington businessman and coffee shop owner who unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2022. He says he got into politics after the Beshear Administration forced his business to close during the COVID-19 pandemic. He says as treasurer he would call-out wasteful spending that results from government overreach.
“It’s not enough to be an experienced politician, you have to be a competent person with common sense,” says Cooperrider. “I have that background.”
Mark Metcalf is Garrard County Attorney and has previously worked as a federal prosecutor and a federal immigration court judge. The Lancaster native served 29 years in the Kentucky Army National Guard, including a combat tour in Iraq. He says his professional and military experience makes him uniquely qualified to be treasurer.
“I see [this office] as an opportunity to speak out for taxpayers, to restore to Kentucky fiscal discipline,” says Metcalf. “I bring the perspective of a man who’s watched Frankfort indebt the people of this state far beyond the means of one generation to pay those debts off.”
O.J. Oleka is a consultant in Frankfort and a former president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities. He is a first-generation American who served for three years as deputy treasurer and chief of staff to current Kentucky Treasurer Allison Ball. He says he knows the office “front and back” and wants to use it to protect and promote the American dream.
“We don’t need somebody who doesn’t understand the office as our next state treasurer,” says Oleka. “We need somebody who gets the job done, somebody who’s been there before, somebody who can lead.”
The winner of the GOP primary for treasurer will face Democrat Michael Bowman of Louisville, who is running unopposed.
Education Funding and Other Issues
Although the state treasurer does not directly impact state funding or policymaking, the treasurer does sit on several important boards and commissions, including the Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System, the State Investment Commission, and the Kentucky Lottery Board.
Cooperrider says the lottery needs stricter oversight, pointing to how lottery revenues increased 5.7 percent last year, but funds returned to the state increased by only 1.7 percent. He says that’s $14 million in unaccounted funds, which he claims is going to inflated overhead and expenses at the Kentucky Lottery Corporation instead of to funding education. He also opposes allowing Kentuckians to use credit cards to purchase lottery tickets, saying that is “the opposite of financial literacy.”
Metcalfe says he opposes gambling because it preys on the poorest Kentuckians, but since the lottery already exists, he says its proceeds should be targeted at the schools and students that traditionally have been underfunded. He says children who come from homes that are poor, food insecure, or traumatized deserve the same academic opportunities as more affluent families. He also supports giving public dollars to private schools and using tax funds for school vouchers.
Oleka touts his work in the treasurer’s office to help create the KY Saves 529 program that provides certain tax advantages to Kentuckians who save for college education. He also supports school choice and says his doctorate in education will inform his work on these issues.
State Spending on Diversity and Social Issues
The candidates were asked about their views on critical race theory (CRT) in schools; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training in government; and socially responsible investing strategies known as ESG (for environmental, social, and governance).
Metcalfe describes CRT, the LGBTQ+ movement, and DEI training as “wokeism.” He also says that “woke” banks that won’t invest in coal, oil, or natural gas are hurting Kentuckians and putting the fossil fuel industry out of business. He says the state’s public pension funds should be invested where they will make the highest returns for retirees.
“We shouldn’t be scoring based upon political correctness, we should be scoring investments based upon, do they provide a profitable return,” says Metcalf.
Oleka says he doesn’t believe in CRT, which he describes as a worldview that contends race impacts everything. He says if CRT was taught when he was a student, he wouldn’t have become as successful as he is. On pension investments, he says the state should be focused on the best returns, not ESG.
“The thing that we need from a state treasurer is to work with our pension board, to work with the pensioners, and to work with the General Assembly to make sure we’ve got all the resources that we need to provide everything that our pensioners need,” says Oleka.
Cooperrider says topics like DEI, gender theory, and CRT only create division among Americans and prevent people from solving the real problems that plague the nation. He says state funds shouldn’t support any of those philosophies, whether that’s in school curricula, workforce recruitment, diversity training, or pension investments.
“Every dollar we spend trying to somehow seek and find people based on their skin color or gender is completely wasted,” says Cooperrider. “We should be about the results to our taxpayers.”
Another function of the state treasurer is to administer unclaimed property from safety deposit boxes, old life insurance policies, and other sources and return those assets to their rightful owners. Oleka says when he was director of the unclaimed property division, the division returned assets valued at $25 million to owners, which he says set a single-year record. He says they also reduced the time it took to process claims.
Cooperrider says the treasurer should have software that automatically searches for and contacts the rightful owners of assets that are turned over to the state. He says he would also promote the unclaimed property division at fairs and festivals in every county of the commonwealth. And he wants to address the probate court process, which he says can make it prohibitively expensive for some people to claim assets that are rightfully theirs.
If elected, Metcalfe says his priorities upon taking office will be to make sure the state’s pension funds are invested for maximum returns. He contends the state can do much better than the current 6 percent rate of return. He says he also wants to help to shrink the state’s debt and reduce welfare spending by bolstering education and workforce training efforts.
Oleka says he would eliminate the processing of paper checks wherever possible and switch those payments to electronic transfers. He says that alone would save the state $3 million. He says he would also expand the listing of companies and financial institutions involved in ESG and energy company boycotts to ensure the state does no business with those entities.
Cooperrider says his first priority will be to create a wasteful spending report and deliver it to legislators ahead of the 2024 General Assembly session. He says that will help them see areas of unnecessary spending that should be eliminated during the state budgeting process next year.
Republican Party Politics
All three candidates say they will support former President Donald Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee for president in 2024. Oleka says he worked with the Trump Administration while he was in the treasurer’s office and during his time with the state’s independent colleges and universities.
As to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Oleka and Metcalfe say President Joe Biden was fairly elected. Cooperrider says Trump was the victim of government actors, social media companies, and the mainstream media that colluded to bury allegations of rampant misconduct by Biden family members.
Republican for Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture
State Rep. Richard Heath (R-Mayfield) grew up on his family’s hog and corn farm in Graves County, and he raised his own tobacco and grains to put himself through college. He later worked as manager for the local Southern States store and now owns a construction business that specializes in barns and other farm buildings. Heath has served in the state House of Representatives since 2012. He made an unsuccessful bid for agriculture commissioner in 2015, losing in the Republican primary by less than 1,500 votes.
“I want to be Commissioner of Agriculture to be Commissioner of Agriculture. This is not a steppingstone or a training ground for the next office,” says Heath. “I look forward to taking the life experiences that I have to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and use that to help the people of the commonwealth.”
Former state Rep. Jonathan Shell of Lancaster is also running in the GOP primary. He declined KET’s invitation to participate in the program.
Heath says the main issues facing Kentucky farmers include high prices for fertilizer and fuel, navigating supply chain shortages, and finding people to do farm labor. He says the federal H-2A temporary agricultural workers program is vital to farmers, especially those who grow tobacco. But he says it’s becoming hard for farmers to afford the price of migrant laborers. He says the state Department of Agriculture can’t change that, but federal lawmakers can.
“I have a good rapport with our federal delegation to make sure they realize the unintended consequences of continuing to raise the cost of H-2A workers to the point that the farmer is not going to get a return on his investment,” says Heath.
On hemp and marijuana production, Heath says he voted against this year’s medical cannabis bill. He did vote for similar legislation in 2020, saying that bill was more tightly written. He later learned his constituents strongly opposed that decision, prompting him to oppose medical cannabis bills this year and last year. He says there is still hope that industrial hemp could become a valuable farm commodity, but he says the industry has to be built slowly and methodically. He contends initial hemp efforts were too ambitious and left many farmers with crops they could not sell.
“I think the way it was tackled was overpromised (and) underdelivered,” says Heath. “We can get past that and move on.”
Finally, Heath says he wants to expand markets for Kentucky farm products and to help non-farmers understand the wide-ranging impact of the Department of Agriculture, from inspecting gas pumps, grocery store scales, and amusement park rides, to monitoring food safety and veterinarians.
Democrat for Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture
Sierra Enlow of Hodgenville grew up on a LaRue County farm that her family has worked for five generations. She has degrees in community and leadership development as well as agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky. Enlow works as an economic development consultant helping manufacturers, family businesses, tech entrepreneurs, and small communities grow. She is running unopposed in the Democratic primary and says she has dreamed of being agriculture commissioner since serving as president of her local Future Farmers of America chapter.
“I really think that this race should be about economic development and how we’re building strong rural economies for our farmers and how we’re driving good jobs for our rural community residents,” she says.
In addition to farm labor shortages, Enlow says the state is struggling to bring young Kentuckians into farming. She says she knows from personal experience how difficult it is for young people to return to their rural hometowns and build viable lives. She says rural communities need more on- and off-farm jobs to thrive, including attorneys, accountants, and bankers who understand agriculture. Enlow says rural development funds and Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement funds should be better targeted to help support new farmers as well as women and minority farmers.
One development option that more farmers and rural communities could consider, according to Enlow, is hosting solar power collectors, either on farmland or on existing farm buildings. She says there are federal grants, loans, and tax incentives that can help farmers with upfront costs, which the state could supplement as well.
“That’s a great way that we’re bringing out-of-state capital into Kentucky and supporting the growth of a sustainable and renewable solar program,” says Enlow. “Progress is coming and we have to plan for it correctly.”
Enlow praises current efforts by the state to address suicides among farmers. To build on that, she says she would work with health care providers to ensure that farmers and rural communities have access to quality health insurance coverage and mental health services.
As for new crops, Enlow says legislation to legalize medical marijuana is important for farmers who could grow and process the crop. She wants to use tax incentives and other development policies to get more grocery stores to locate in food deserts. And she wants to build connections between urban manufacturers and rural communities to make farmers a stronger part of the supply chain.
“The ag commissioner should be elected by every voter in Kentucky,” says Enlow, “because it does truly touch on every person’s life across this state.”