The Bell County League of Women Voters and the Middlesboro Business and Professional Women’s Club hosted a candidates forum at Middlesboro City Hall last night for the Kentucky House of Representatives 87th District race.
A packed house were given a chance to hear from both incumbent Rep. Rick Nelson and challenger Josh Howard during the forum. Each candidate were able to give a two-minute opening and closing statement, as well as a two-minute response to each question. Pat Bingham acted as the moderator for the event.
Howard presented his opening statement first. In his opening opening statement, he laid out that he plans to present new ideas, leadership and a new vision to the Bell and Harlan areas.
“All elections are important,” said Howard. “This election is particularly important because of the economic struggles we face, not only as a nation, but as a state.”
Howard stated Washington D.C. has refused to make tough decisions in regards to the budget and policies, and their actions are directly affecting the district. He claims the governments decisions has caused economic hardship, loss of jobs and living wages, as well as the loss of money for social programs.
Howard believes that in order for the 87th district to advance, it needs strong and passionate leadership and a revitalized economy. “It’s about (the citizens),” said Howard. “My vision is to be an ambassador for the area by promoting higher education and emphasizing job skill and vocational training.”
When Nelson opened, he began by mentioning a lady by the name of Virginia Huff, who was unable to make it to the forum. Nelson mentioned that part of the position as state representative is helping people, which he said is the reason he enjoys it.
“I’m the luckiest man in the state of Kentucky because I’ve been elected by the citizens to represent them,” said Nelson. “Every morning when I get up I say (that) I’m going to get a chance to help someone today.”
Later in his opening, Nelson stated he had brought over $10 million in water projects to Bell County and there are 15,000 families with clean drinking water in the region. He also stated he had brought $9.3 million in water projects to Harlan County.
One of the topics of discussion during the forum was coal and the changes in how coal severance money is distributed to coal counties.
Nelson brought up the point that only a handful of counties receive coal severance money, and there are only about 16 to 18 coal county representatives. He said there has been numerous attempts to get more coal severance money, but the majority will not pass the bill.
Howard stated that $5.2 billion is at stake when it comes to coal severance money. He claims only $886,000 was returned to the area in the previous fiscal year, a number that was disputed by Nelson who claims to have brought back $5 million to the Bell County area alone.
His goal is to get all the coal severance money back into the area. “It’s all about setting a goal, reaching for it and making it happen,” said Howard.
Howard claims the reason the job of getting more coal severance money is not done is because no one has gone to Frankfort and tried.
A question was also asked about the future of the economy if the local economy is no longer coal-based. Both Howard and Nelson agreed tourism is the next best thing.
Howard said he wants to utilize what is already in the area, such as the state parks and Cumberland Gap. He claimed the area needs to develop hotels, restaurants and other attractions to get people to come to the area and stay a little while.
Nelson stated he believes that tourism and the development of small businesses will help develop the local economy. Nelson also mentioned he did not believe coal is a lost source, stating “if the EPA would get off our backs, we would be OK.”
The youth of the area was also discussed during the forum. Howard believes colleges should be introduced to students during their eighth-grade and freshman year.
He believes once the economy is revitalized, the youth will play a big role in the area. He wants to see young professionals go to school and then come back to the area.
Nelson believes it is important to utilize what the area has now, such as little league and school activities to better the youth. He also believes the parents have an important role in the development of the children as well.
“We do have, I believe, a lot of activities,” said Nelson. “I remember when I was little we had activities and they were called chores.”
Nelson believes having a good parent helps children more than sending a child to a recreation facility everyday. He also stated the schools are great because they have easy access to the children, which he says is why it is important to build the schools up.
One of the last major issues addressed involved the illegal drug epidemic in eastern Kentucky. The community wanted to know what steps both individuals would take to reduce the amount a drug trafficking.
Nelson said House Bill 1 was passed during the General Assembly this year, which he helped sponsor and hopes will reduce the amount of drug abuse. This bill required the use of KASPER, which is a system that monitors the amount of pain medication an individual has been given. The bill also required a pain clinic to have a licensed physician to run the clinic.
Nelson believes in due time, the bill will reduce the amount of prescription drug abuse in the area.
Howard believes simply giving young and older people something else to do can help the problem. He believes a revitalized economy in the area would keep people from thinking about doing or selling drugs.
He also mentioned that Operation UNITE needs to be revitalized in the area and can be a helpful tool in fight prescription drug abuse.
Anthony Cloud is a staff writer for the Middlesboro Daily News. He can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 606-248-1010, ext. 208.