LIBERTY — U.S. Sen. Rand Paul opened his visit to Casey County Friday by delivering some breaking news from Washington.
"I don't know if you've heard this yet, but I heard reports about it all the way here — the Federal Reserve has been robbed," Paul told the crowd of about 100 gathering in the Pork Producers building at the Ag/Expo Center, and then he paused for affect. "The robbers were confused. They didn't know what to do with (negative) $16 trillion."
That bit of deficit humor was the only time Paul made light of an issue he considers the most serious the country faces. America is racking up debt at a rate of $50,000 a second, the Republican from Bowling Green said, and has become "the world's greatest debtor nation."
"We even owe Mexico $30 or $40 billion," he said.
Paul hit on his well-tested outsider, anti big government themes during his visit, during which his opening remarks were followed by a roundtable discussion with a select group of local citizens and a question-and-answer session with the audience. The senator even answered individual questions, signed autographs and posed for pictures with those who waited in line afterward. The stop lasted nearly two hours.
“I just think it’s wonderful that he’s willing to come to Casey County and spend so much time,” local business woman Susan Dixon said. “I am in general agreement with a great deal of what he says. I think it’s great to have a fresh voice in Washington.”
Paul segued from the debt to the "enormous amount of waste" at the federal level, reeling off a list of silly sounding government funded projects like $100,000 for a white squirrel sanctuary in Tennessee, $500,000 for college students to travel to Hawaii to develop a menu for Mars — "Guess what's on the menu. Pizza, he quipped" — and $3 million to study monkeys on methamphetamine.
Eliminating such projects won't do much damage to $16 trillion of debt, "but you've got to start somewhere," said Paul, who also railed against sending foreign aid to countries "that burn the American Flag," including supplying tanks and fighter jets to Egypt.
Paul, who will give the Tea Party’s response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, took jabs at the Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security programs he says must be drastically cut to shore up the country’s financial footing.
“Social Security is no longer a pension program, it’s a disability program,” he said, suggesting the program is infested with too many able-bodied moochers. “If you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you’re not disabled.”
Liberty dentist Michele Beeler, one of the roundtable panelists, told Paul 60 percent of her patients are Medicaid recipients and it would cutbacks to that program would mean lots of kids with troubled teeth wouldn’t get treatment and make it difficult for rural providers such as herself to remain in business.
“We depend on Medicaid to keep our doors open,” Beeler said.
Paul responded that the number of Medicaid recipients will go up dramatically under Obamacare, adding an additional 400,000 people in Kentucky alone. “We’re going the wrong direction with Obama,” he said.
He proposed Medicaid include a substantial co-pay to force those who abuse the system to think twice before seeking medical attention. He called the program “a credit card without limits.”
When Beeler said instituting a co-pay would mean many parents would stop bringing in their kids for treatment and they would be walking around with toothaches and infections, Paul responded, “I want the same thing you want. I’m not sure I know the answer.”
Casey County High School Principal Josh Blevins asked Paul about his stance in favor of diverting federal funding for public education into homeschooling. Paul responded that most school funding comes through the state, and he prefers tax money stay closer to home rather than be routed through Washington for redistribution.
“I’m not for taking money away from public schools, I just want more local control,”
When high school student council president Sara Coffman asked what Paul was doing to help keep jobs in America and create new ones, especially in rural areas like Casey County, the senator spent much of his answer deriding a 35-percent corporate tax rate that is twice as high as Canada’s and excessive governmental regulation.
“I don’t believe in no regulations but we are going overboard with regulations. The rules are going too far and chasing people away,” he said.
He called claims that “the Statue of Liberty is drowning” because global warming is causing ocean levels to rise “a bunch of malarkey.”
One audience member asked Paul why the Department of Homeland Security was stockpiling ammunition. Paul said he’d heard reports — some in the ultra right wing are suggesting it’s because the government is preparing for civil unrest — but doesn’t know what to make of them. He used the question to voice his pro-gun stance, saying more restrictive firearms laws are not the answer to gun violence.
“We should be trying to prevent insane people from having weapons,” he said.
In a discussion afterward, Paul said he thinks it’s a good idea for some school principals and teachers to carry guns to work to deter violence and fight back against a shooter on campus. The question of whether a school should have armed employees should be answered at the local level, not in Washington, he said.
Paul also told reporters that he believes industrial hemp could be a potentially big boon for Kentucky farmers and local economies, and he is pushing hard for it to be decriminalized at the federal level. He said there is bi-partisan support in Washington for a bill that would allow states to make their own call about legalizing hemp.
If that bill fails but the Kentucky legislature passes its own law making hemp production legal, Paul said he will work with Gov. Steve Beshear in requesting that President Obama sign a waiver allowing Kentucky to grow the plants even though it remains illegal on the federal level.
“I’m trying to get Kentucky to lead the way,” he said.
Paul, a Tea Party favorite, is considered to be among a handful of Republicans in the running to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. He didn’t give any clues about his intentions on Friday.
“I don’t know at this point,” he said, adding that he won’t announce his decision until 2014.