Senator Rand Paul was in the area this week, meeting with leaders from Carter, Boyd, Greenup, Elliott and Lawrence Counties at the FIVCO offices on the Industrial Parkway Monday afternoon.

Paul discussed the state of the economy, as well as plans to improve outdated infrastructure by reallocating funds from other federal programs and from money spent on “nation building” in the Middle East.

Paul began his visit by stating that he felt that the state and the northeastern Kentucky region were doing well economically. He touted national unemployment rates and said as he went around the area one of the issues he heard from employers was that they had more work than they could find employees for, which he said was “a good problem to have.”

He said that “welders are being trained 24 hours a day,” to meet expected needs in the manufacturing industries. He blamed the news media for focusing on the negative things occurring in Washington, instead of the positive things occurring in the nation and region, though he did joke that the news media was correct on one count.

“That (dysfunction in the government) is all true,” he teased. “We don't get along in Washington.”

Paul continued, however, saying that “amazing things are happening” across the nation. He said that one of the complaints from critics of the current administration is that the rich are getting richer, but argued that trickle-down was working.

“Yes, the rich are getting richer,” Paul said. “So are the middle class and so are the poor.”

Paul, who has long been one of the few Republicans to criticize military action in the Middle East, also took time to continue in that vein during his visit. He characterized the war against terror as creating a ripple effect, where attempts to rout out terrorism resulted in a new generation taking up arms as terrorists because of U.S. action in their nations. He used an example of the Saudis bombing a funeral procession with U.S. artillery, killing 150 people, and asked how the children of those people were supposed to feel when they discovered American made and supplied bombs were responsible for the deaths of their parents.

Despite all this, Paul said he was “encouraged by where we are.”

“I think the future is very bright (for northeastern Kentucky),” he said.

Paul then opened the floor to questions and comments from local leaders. Greenup County Judge Executive Bobby Carpenter started off the Q&A session, asking Paul about the loss of jobs with the closing of AK Steel. He said that when Governor Bevin was in Greenup recently he said to him, “don't let them forget us.”

Paul asked if the company was still responsible for maintaining and cleaning up the site after shutting it down, and suggested that other industry might be interested in utilizing the facilities there, as the river and rail infrastructure was still intact and wouldn't need to be created from scratch. He suggested that offering tax breaks for any new industry willing to locate at the site could be beneficial to its redevelopment. He said the local tax district could work with the state to “offer tax packages to come there."

Ashland mayor Stephen Gilmore, however, noted issues the city had with redevelopment of other existing AK sites in the city, because of their brownfield status. He said the city would be interested in purchasing the land to offer to other developers, but that the price quoted to them was too high.

Paul said he would be happy to advocate for the loosening of federal EPA restrictions on the land, noting that he favored local control over these issues.

“Do you think anyone else is going to care more about the environment?” Paul asked. “You live here.”

He said sometimes communities needed to focus more on a “good solution” rather than a “perfect solution,” and stated that he would draft a letter asking the federal EPA to defer to the state EPA on use of the site.

Carter County Judge Executive Mike Malone told the Senator that Carter County has the workforce Paul said employers were seeking, but that the county needs the jobs for that workforce, and asked for assistance with “getting the word out” that Carter County was ready to provide employers with that workforce.

He also asked for assistance with speeding up the remittance of FEMA funds for the various weather related expenses to hit the county over the last several years.

Paul told Malone he was “more than willing” to help with the county's FEMA issues.

As far as the workforce, Paul said he was “a fan” of getting employers involved with high schools, vocational schools and technical and trade colleges, so that the schools could provide the type of curriculum and training needed for potential employees to move directly into those jobs.

Representative Danny Bentley, from House District 98 covering Greenup and Boyd counties, asked the Senator about issues with diabetes related costs, specifically insulin, and for assistance coordinating with the Congressional Diabetes Caucus.

Bentley said he regularly gets calls from constituents who have lost children and other loved ones as a result of insulin rationing.

Paul said that he was a critic of “evergreen” patents which allowed “big pharma” to freeze generic drug manufacturers out of the market.

“We need to let generics in... and create competition,” Paul said. He said his CREATES Act was one proposal for addressing this issue.

“Big pharma is abusing the system,” Paul said. He noted that he “supports capitalism,” but said that if pharmaceutical companies, “keep fighting, there is going to be an overreaction,” which he said will lead to a “crappy system” imposed by those who want to create socialized healthcare.

He then went on to criticize those who suggest American needs Medicare for all, noting that the current Medicare system isn't adequately funded. He called Medicate for all “irresponsible.”

“It still costs something, and has to come from somewhere,” he said.

When asked about aging infrastructure, Paul said that the federal government might currently bring in $3 trillion in tax dollars, but they were spending $4 trillion.

While he believes infrastructure is an important focus, he thinks the federal government needs to look at ways to adequately fund it. His suggestion was for existing revenue sources to be diverted to infrastructure, suggesting that all other programs give up just one percent of their funding to be used for infrastructure improvements, what he termed his “penny plan for infrastructure.”

He also suggested withdrawing U.S. troops from activities abroad and using those funds to build U.S. infrastructure instead of for foreign nation building, but noted that he got kickback from conservative hawks in Congress when he made such suggestions. Despite this push back from within his own party, he said, he believed we should “stop paving others' roads and pave our own.”

He also discussed changes to the H2A program, which mainly impacts agriculture. He said he would like to see activities like landscaping and livestock moved to the H2A from the H2B, which has a cap on foreign labor that the H2A program does not have.

He noted that currently folks can be prosecuted for not following the rules from either program, which he felt hurt productivity and growth. He said Washington and local governments often “criminalized everything,” using requirements for listing caloric intake on menus as an example. He said that intentions might be good, but that he felt it should be up to the consumer and the market to decide, rather than trying to legislate healthy eating.

When asked about the potential for Congress to pass any legislation in an election year, Paul conceded that chances were slim, but said that opposing legislation from the other side of the aisle could be just as important as passing legislation. Instead of passing legislation, he said, Congress could still benefit their constituents by “stopping legislation that impedes liberty.”

“I think it's a good debate worth having,” he said, before going on to criticize a new batch of freshman Senators and Representatives who “want socialism.”

He said that the best thing the federal government could do was to keep corporate tax rates low to encourage continued business growth.

He also discussed recent bad press that both he and Senator Mitch McConnell have received over supporting Russian investment in the state.

“We live in an international world,” he said. If the companies wanted to give jobs to Kentuckians, he said, he didn't care where they came from. He also said that attempting to stop Russian investment in Braidy could lead to China “end(ing) up with a monopoly on the aluminum market.”

When asked about the problem of underemployment, and people in professions like teaching needing to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, despite the improving economic numbers, Paul said that there were plenty of good paying jobs out there if people looked for them, but conceded that there were problems in certain industries.

He said there were jobs in Kentucky that allowed young people to come straight out of high school and make over $20 an hour, noting DHL as one example that he has recently heard of.

“I think when you look at the statistics, the median wage in the country has actually gone up by $4000 in the last four years,” Paul said. “I think it went up from $58,000 to $62,000, so actually wages are rising. There is a shortage of workers. There is a shortage of labor, and the price of labor is actually rising. So I'm finding people in northern Kentucky, one shipping business was hiring laborers right out of high school for $22 an hour. So really, wages are rising. There has never been a better time, in my lifetime, to be looking for work. Even though we have very low unemployment, there still is a problem though, and another way of measuring it is to call it Labor Force Participation, that's only 62 percent. So that means 38 percent of the people aren't working, which is a much bigger number than the three percent. But that's a more complicated issue, because that has to do with people who either can't or won't work, or have some reason why they've gotten out of the workforce. Addiction or other things like that. That's a big problem we have to figure out. The interesting thing is with three percent unemployment, you'll find that people (in industry) are actually looking for work, they really are hungry for new people to work. The biggest problem I find as I go across Kentucky is people who can't find enough workers. So it's the best time to be somebody looking for work.”

Contact the writer at jwells@journal-times.com.

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