Lieutenant governor candidates debate farm issues

The three candidates for Indiana lieutenant governor are talking about supporting Indiana's rural communities with strategies ranging from building better roads to improving health care.

Democrat Vi Simpson, Libertarian Brad Klopfenstein and Republican Sue Ellspermann met Wednesday afternoon at the Indiana State Fair for possibly their only debate before the November elections. Ellspermann is running with Republican Mike Pence; Simpson with Democrat John Gregg; and Klopfenstein with Libertarian Rupert Boneham.

Farm issues play a central role in the duties of Indiana's lieutenant governor, who also serves as the state's agriculture secretary. The debate was hosted by the AgriInstitute.

All three candidates praised outgoing Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman for her leadership through the ongoing drought and for her efforts promoting agricultural exports. Gov. Mitch Daniels is term-limited from seeking re-election in November and Skillman opted against running again.

Ellspermann stuck to a tight script throughout the hourlong debate, sticking to talking points the Pence campaign has relied on throughout the campaign. Answering a question about how a Pence administration would pay for road and bridge improvements in rural Indiana, Ellspermann said the state needs to rely on more public-private partnerships.

"The Pence administration will help us to take the resources we have and leverage those across the state using some of the new tools we have, the public private partnerships," she said.

Public-private partnerships, or "P3s" are being tested throughout the state. The benefit includes relying on private money to build roads and bridges, but motorists still foot the bill by paying tolls under plans like one floated to replace the New Harmony bridge this summer.

Simpson, a 28-year veteran of the Indiana Senate, hit Pence, albeit indirectly, for being a part of a Congress that left Washington earlier this month without approving a federal farm bill. She also got in somewhat subtle jabs at Daniels for budget cuts that stripped rural priorities including increased health care access.

"I carried legislation a few years ago to create that program, unfortunately it hasn't been funded un the last few years, we'd like to see it funded," she said.

While Simpson got in most of her digs on Republicans, Klopfenstein saved his sharpest criticism for Democrats. After Simpson chastised Pence for being part of a Congress that couldn't pass a federal farm bill, Klopfenstein hit back saying it shouldn't be called a "farm" bill because of the amount of money that goes to the federal food stamp program included in it.

"She said that we need to pass the ag bill. Absolutely not. Let's rename it the food stamp bill," Klopfenstein said.

Wednesday's debate was the only scheduled meeting of the three picks for lieutenant governor and was the first debate of the governor's race.

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