"We pay taxes so that we can make critical investments to make our Commonwealth strong. Too many of our elected leaders have not been good stewards of our government or our resources, and the processes we depend on as a civilized society have been ignored. It seems like too many of our elected officials are more interested in politics, getting re-elected, and controlling power than they are in serving their constituents. That’s why I’m running---I want to be a good steward of our resources, and I want to be an elected leader who represents our district and the Commonwealth regardless of who’s “in power” because that should not matter---it’s the people that matter. I’m not interested in political games or war, I’m interested in getting to work with others that are truly interested in working together to solve problems."
-Joe Graviss State Representative
District 56, Kentucky
JOE ON THE ISSUES
The inexcusable pension crisis is unfortunately one of the biggest issues facing our Commonwealth right now. It’s good and proper that the legislature fully funded all the pensions except their own at the actuarially recommended level this session. However, there is now a lawsuit challenging some of the changes that were made in secret late in the session without the openness and stakeholder involvement good government requires. These changes affect current employees and retirees, and also reduce benefits for new hires that will make it difficult to attract more great talent into state government and teaching. Retirees and current state employees need to be assured we will keep the promises we’ve made to them. As a businessman, I understand that the way we keep those promises is to find a real, fair, and equitable solution that includes sufficient revenues to continue paying down the unfunded liabilities. Without more revenues, there will be more cuts to the necessary services we rely on, including education, child protective services, and corrections. I know that this is what some folks want - they want government to be smaller - to spend next to nothing and provide close to nothing. But that is not who we are and it’s not what we’re about as a Commonwealth. Solving this problem will require all stakeholders to be at the table, decisions must be made in a transparent and open manner, and everyone will need to work together to find the best solution benefitting us all, not just the wealthy money managers and their friends and families. Because the pension crisis cannot be solved without revenues, true tax reform will be crucial to fixing our pension problem.
Kentucky’s current tax code is riddled with exemptions, exclusions, deductions and preferences to the point that we give away more in breaks than we collect in taxes. The system is unfair because it asks more of those with less, and because it prefers some over others. Our tax revenues haven’t been growing as fast as our overall economy, making it difficult to make the investments we need in education, healthcare, public safety, and infrastructure and this remains true after the tax bill passed by the 2018 General Assembly. The bill did remove some exemptions and exclusions, however it also made our tax code more regressive by shifting more burden onto the sales tax and away from the income tax. It also increases the disparities between the wealthy and everyone else by providing more advantages for wealthy taxpayers. And we are all suffering because of the lack of investment and lack of growth. We’ve had round after round of budget cuts to the point that our systems are close to breaking - social workers and public defenders have unmanageable caseloads, our county jails are way over capacity and college is becoming unaffordable for more and more Kentuckians as tuition is increased because of cuts in state funding. Our current tax system is unsustainable. We’ve studied and debated this for too long, and people are truly suffering - our neighbors, our friends, and our communities. I could go on and on listing the needs we have as a society that are not being met because our elected leaders refuse to be honest, open and transparent about our financial house and the need to address the shortcomings of our tax code.
Legislation passed during the 2018 session takes the positive step of expanding both the sales tax and income tax bases, however a majority of the revenues raised were used to pay for corporate and individual rate cuts at the top, rather than to produce more revenues that can be used to shore up the myriad of crumbling systems and programs in the commonwealth. The real “kicker” of the income tax rate cuts is that the slight positive impact felt by a vast majority of taxpayers will not be enough to make a difference - but the hit to the general fund is very large - so the general fund takes a big hit while a vast majority of people in Kentucky aren’t helped. When coupled with the sales tax base expansion, most Kentuckians will actually pay more in overall taxes, while the wealthiest 5% benefit. We need to amend our tax code so that we capture the growing segments of our economy, allowing our revenues to grow as our economy does. We can do this by eliminating the special interest tax breaks and loopholes that remain, cutting back on smoking by raising the cigarette tax by an additional $0.50, restructuring our individual and corporate income taxes by adjusting rates to make them more productive, and examining the myriad of credits, deductions and exclusions. We should expand the sales tax base to include more luxury services, and we should be wary of anyone who tells us that cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy will result in more overall revenue for our state because the benefits will “trickle down” - this approach has been tried, most recently in Kansas, and it has failed miserably. Counting on “projected economic growth” has also failed miserably. We either haven’t grown enough, or the growth that did occur only benefitted a few. Families don’t budget on hoped for raises, they budget for what they know is real. Kentucky leaders need to do the same. We need a fairer, more reasoned approach to help get us back on a sound fiscal track. How about a little “trickle up” in that the state has an opportunity for more revenue based on the recent federal tax cuts and still be “revenue neutral” in terms of corporate tax bills. I believe that with increased revenue, we can create a state that people will want to stay in or move to, and employers will be attracted to because of our well educated labor pool.
I believe that the most important thing that we can do to move our Commonwealth forward is to ensure that every Kentuckian has an opportunity to get a quality education. To provide that quality education and to attract the great teachers we need, adequate and fair funding is crucial, and we need to do more - much more. We have excellent teachers and administrators in the 56th district. These dedicated educators are doing a great job in extremely difficult circumstances, without much of what they need from a resource standpoint. Imagine what could happen if they were funded and treated properly! Professional education and continuing lifelong learning by our dedicated teachers is important for their professional development and continued dedication to our students. The Kentucky Department of Education has a strategic plan focusing on the right objectives and measurements for our students that includes accountability measures and standards. Their focus on equity, achievement and integrity is excellent and will move the Commonwealth forward - but implementation of the plan will suffer without proper funding to make it a reality. The same is true for higher education. Tuition costs have become unaffordable and many students are deciding a college degree is sadly no longer within their grasp because they simply can’t afford it. Tuition increases reflect almost dollar for dollar the cuts to higher education from the state budgets over the years. It would take over $160 million just to get our state institutions back to pre-recession funding levels. Tax reform will be an important factor in helping fund higher education to improve the health and wealth of our citizens.
I believe that access to good, affordable health care is a basic right. But access to healthcare has unfortunately become a political football and the only people winning are the insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies—and their lobbyists. Our elected officials seem to continually vote to protect them and the campaign contributions they provide, while ignoring the real, human needs of people. Access to healthcare is also a national problem and while insurance and pharmaceutical companies enjoy record profits, our citizens suffer. We need more companies to compete in Kentucky for health care and Kentuckians need greater access to necessary medicine at lower costs. Generic drug makers must be allowed to participate when the patents on drugs runs out as outlined in the CREATES Act of 2016.
Medicaid expansion helped millions of Kentuckians and has dramatically reduced the number of uninsured folks here starting us on the path to being a healthier Kentucky. But the gains made because of the expansion are being destroyed because the Governor was granted a Medicare waiver that will result in millions of Kentuckians currently benefiting from Medicaid losing this vital coverage. This is not only a health issue, it’s a budget and economic development issue because we need a healthy workforce. Going forward, some of the costs for the expansion, which were originally paid 100% by the federal government, shift to the states and it will cost us more to maintain these programs, although the federal government will continue to bear the bulk of the cost for the program. It's truly a deal you wouldn’t want to pass up when you study the numbers. With careful planning and an examination of our resources, we can and must come up with what we need to cover our small percentage share of the cost. Eliminating many of the preferential tax breaks combined with another increase in the tobacco tax, which is one of the lowest in the nation in a state with the worst, or among the worst lung cancer deaths, and smoking related illnesses affecting us all, we could generate enough revenue to pay substantially all our portion of the expansion costs!
The 56th district enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Commonwealth. There are help wanted signs everywhere, and more jobs are coming - well-paying jobs that folks from outside the district are driving a long way to work at. But the benefits we enjoy in the 56th district do not reflect Kentucky as a whole, and there are many areas of our state where there are no jobs and where unemployment rates are very high. It would be easy for us to just sit back and be happy that we live in a district where the economy is booming and jobs are prevalent, but I believe that we have a duty and an obligation to work to improve economic conditions for everyone in the Commonwealth. We do this by providing uniformly great schools and other educational opportunities for our citizens, and by supporting local officials who are working to develop thriving communities across the Commonwealth. The real jobs issue in the 56th district is the lack of qualified employees. I believe that if the elected officials in our district at all levels work well together and with the employers in the district, and if there is open and frequent communication to identify needs and solve problems, we will continue to grow and thrive, to attract new businesses and strengthen our workforce. Strengthening our workforce will also strengthen our tax base, providing additional resources that will allow us to expand and improve the services we provide to our citizens. Employers will locate where their workers want to be and people want to live in vibrant communities that are safe, have high-quality schools, well maintained infrastructure, access to affordable healthcare, and a great quality of life.