LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is pushing to let voters decide this fall whether to give local governments the ability to raise sales taxes to fund specific projects – a policy he has opposed.

On Thursday, the GOP governor issued his strongest endorsement yet of putting the local-option sales tax, an idea championed for years by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, before voters in November.

Speaking to a group of county officials in Louisville, Bevin said he not only favors having a statewide vote to authorize the policy, but he also is having conversations with “certain key individuals in the House and the Senate to ensure that this gets a fair hearing.”

Two local option sales tax bills have passed the Democrat-controlled Kentucky House and are awaiting action in the Senate, a chamber led by Republicans. The key measure is a constitutional amendment that would go before voters during the general election in November.

If that measure were approved statewide, cities and counties could then ask residents to vote for a 1-percentage point increase in sales taxes to pay for specific projects.

“I think it is appropriate that in this next 2016 election season that, on the ballot, we should have the ability for the people of Kentucky to decide whether they want to allow a constitutional change," Bevin said during a meeting of the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association on Thursday.

“I am encouraging that we put it on the ballot. I think it’s appropriate that we do so. By putting it on the ballot this year it simply means that you all, in the future, would have the ability to put it on your ballots locally for people to make a determination,” Bevin said, according to a video of his remarks obtained by WDRB News.

“I think that’s fair, I think that’s how the people should have control over their own situations,” the governor said.

Bevin’s position is his most forceful to date on the sales tax plan, which has garnered support from dozens of business and government groups across the state, including the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties. Seven former governors, including Republican Ernie Fletcher, have endorsed the proposal.

But opponents contend the extra tax would be regressive, meaning it would disproportionately affect low-income Kentuckians. Reps. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Jim DuPlessis, R-Elizabethtown, both spoke against the proposal on those grounds during a meeting of the House local government committee on March 9.

“We are going to hit them harder,” DuPlessis said.

Bevin, who took office earlier this year, declined to endorse the local option sales tax during a GOP primary debate last April, WDRB reported. And he said raising taxes of any sort would “push more jobs out of our state and dissuade others from coming” to Kentucky, according to the Associated Press.

The governor has softened that stance since being elected, saying in recent months that he would not oppose the plan.

In an interview Friday, Fischer said Bevin's remarks are "very encouraging news."

Fischer noted that the governor has shown interest in broader tax reform in Kentucky. "It's important that we know before that tax reform takes place if the citizens want the local option as part of that. And that's why voting on it earlier, this year in November '16, would be so important," Fischer said.

The constitutional amendment, House Bill 2, cleared the House of Representatives March 11 on a vote of 60-31. Because the bill seeks to amend the constitution, it needed at least 60 votes.

House Bill 374, which details how the tax would work, passed the House 55-36.The two bills have yet to be heard in Senate committees.

In his speech Thursday, Bevin said the enabling legislation has been “loose.”

“That language has been tightened up,” he said. “I’ve encouraged further tightening of it to some degree. I like where it’s going and I think there’s decent odds that you’re going to see something come out.”

Senate President Robert Stivers and Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer haven’t discussed the local option issue with the governor, said John Cox, spokesman for the Senate Republicans.

Asked about the constitutional amendment’s chances in the Senate, Cox said: “Anything is still possible with eight days left, but given the budget situation and how much work is at hand -- it just remains to be seen.”

Note: This story has been clarified to reflect Bevin's remarks endorsing a statewide referendum on the local-option sales tax and not the policy itself. 

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