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Debate: State Senate Candidates Spar Over Who Should Represent Covington in Frankfort

The candidates vying to represent Covington and northern Kenton County in the Kentucky State Senate squared off in a debate Monday night at Ninth Street Baptist Church in the city's Eastside. Republican Chris McDaniel, a Taylor Mill businessman, and Democrat James Noll, a lawyer and Villa Hills city councilman, are fighting to replace the retiring Jack Westwood (R-Erlanger) who has been the senator from the twenty-third district in Frankfort since 1996. Monday's event was sponsored by OASIS, Inc and moderated by local author Rick Robinson, featuring panelists Ryan Alessi of cn|2's Pure Politics, Scott Wartman of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and Michael Monks of The River City News (author of this post).

The candidates went back and forth on issues facing Covington specifically, such as the Brent Spence Bridge project, the Ohio Riverbank and its possible effect on the Licking River Greenway & Trails, Gateway College's urban campus, and the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center. Other regional and statewide issues included pension and tax reform, expanded gaming and horse racing, and the candidates' views on Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana and industrial hemp.

"There is no more important infrastructure project in the twenty-third district," McDaniel said of the Brent Spence Bridge. Recently determined to be structurally obsolete, "we can't allow it to slip into structural deficiency." McDaniel is wholly opposed to tolls to fund the new bridge while Noll says he won't rule out tolls and that the issue requires more study.

But, "It's not going to be just one legislator that determines if there will be tolls on the Brent Spence Bridge," Noll said. "We can't underestimate the importance of getting that bridge built."

The bridge issue was also used during a portion of the debate in which each candidate got to ask the other a question. McDaniel questioned Noll's commitment to Covington's Fifth Street exit, which had been threatened to be removed in one of the approved designs prompting the city's leaders and business community to launch an ultimately successful letter-writing campaign to have the decision reversed. McDaniel accused Noll of suggesting that the new bridge should be placed further west on the river near where Anderson Ferry is. "Those comments were made over six months ago," Noll said, adding that he was attending a forum in Cincinnati where he sought to suggest "creative solutions". "Covington residents spoke and got what was a plan to remove a Covington exit stopped."

"I stood with the people of Covington and supported a Fifth Street exit," McDaniel said. "These are vital issues to the twenty-third and we can't afford someone who won't keep the issues of the largest city in the forefront."

Both candidates were in agreement in expressing support for Gateway College's proposed expanded urban campus in Downtown Covington, the expansion of the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, and the merger of Covington and Kenton County 911 emergency dispatch (and possibly other mergers within local governments), 

Differences emerged on the issues of charter schools with McDaniel in support of them and Noll opposed, and the expansion of Medicaid in the Commonwealth as mandated by the federal Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. "This will benefit Kentucky more than any other state," Noll said, citing a national report. "States that want it delayed or use "unconstitutional" as a legal argument are going to fall behind. Let us take the lead and get our people insured and broaden access to decent health care."

McDaniel said that Governor Steve Beshear does not have the constitutional authority to establish a commission for the expansion of Medicaid. "We can't afford hundreds of thousands of more people in a program that is already insolvent," he said.

Another disagreement was found within a question on two issues floating around in Frankfort currently, industrial hemp and medical marijuana. Though both candidates support industrial hemp in Kentucky, they differ on medical marijuana. "This is a key distinction," Noll said of the two campaigns as he spoke in favor of medical marijuana. "Five or six states have already done this. These states are selling, taxing, and regulating this drug. Why not get in line with trends instead of falling behind? We should embrace it."

McDaniel said that the research into medical marijuana is not far enough along and that he is uncertain whether it works as advertised and said that most of the support is based solely on what he called anecdotal evidence.

Meanwhile, as Noll attempted to attach McDaniel's campaign to Senate President David Williams (R-Burkesville), a highly unpopular figure who was trounced by Governor Beshear in 2011 in the race for the state's top job, and as McDaniel accused Noll of attempting to raise taxes on homeowners in Villa Hills to pay for a road fund, the top issue in this and most other campaigns across the nation is regaining a strong economic footing and job creation. Covington was hit hard by the loss of Omnicare and The Nielsen Company to Cincinnati last year, costing the city hundreds of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue from payroll taxes. The candidates were asked if there is a better way to attract big businesses other than through steep incentive packages and competition with other states.

"It's going to be the overall desire and feelings that boards and CEOs have when they want to relocate to Northern Kentucky," Noll said, adding that improvements to the airport would be necessary to complement the local schools, entertainment options, and suburbs available to people who move here.

McDaniel pointed out Ohio Governor John Kasich's aggressive pursuit of Kentucky businesses. "I have the same attitude on behalf of the twenty-third district," McDaniel said, adding that changes to the state tax code would also be necessary and were mostly to blame for Omnicare's departure.

The biggest issue facing Kentucky's financial health, however, is the pension system. McDaniel said the system faces insolvency by as soon as 2017. "The time for action is now and we must begin to make these adjustments," he said, adding that the costs are strangling local governments. In September, McDaniel joined other Republican legislative candidates in Frankfort to call for the replacement of the defined-benefit pension model for lawmakers to a 401(k) style system, a move they said would save millions of dollars. The Republican also called for the repeal of the prevailing wage.

Noll opposes legislative pensions, period. He favors a hybrid pension model that blends the current system with 401(k) opportunities for public employees with fewer than ten years on the job.

Closer to home, the candidates expressed a varied amount of enthusiasm for the Licking River Greenway & Trails system. While both are in favor of the project, which already features some modest completed areas in Covington, McDaniel said that the project is threatened by the faltering riverbank where the Licking & Ohio Rivers meet. "It makes no sense right now to continue with that project," McDaniel said. "Any investment on the shore of the Ohio River is ahead of its time." He said the Army Corps of Engineers is going to have to make an assessment on what needs to be done to reinforce the troubled shore. "But anyone who has ever worked with the Army Corps of Engineers knows it's going to be a long process and it's going to be their process."

Noll favors moving along with the project anyway. "We need to move forward and challenge the Corps," Noll said.

PHOTO: James Noll and Chris McDaniel in Covington Monday night.