Vice president touts GOP tax overhaul in Kentucky visit

March 7, 2018

The crowd listened to a panel discussion with, from th eleft; Daniel Harrison with Country Boy Brewing, Bill Quigg with More Than A Bakery, Congressman Andy Barr, Ian Boccaccio with Ryan, during the fifth in a series of tax policy events hosted by America First Policies held Wednesday, March 7, 2018, at More Than A Bakery in Versailles, Ky. The series, "Tax Cuts to Put America First," featured guest speakers including Vice President Mike Pence. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

VERSAILLES, Ky. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday brought his boss’s tough-on-trade theme to Kentucky bourbon country, which has prospered from surging whiskey exports and is nervous about threats of a trade war breaking out.

Speaking at a rally to promote Republican tax cuts, Pence said that President Donald Trump’s administration is cracking down on what it sees as unfair trade practices. Pence defended Trump’s pledge to implement tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum imports.

“We’re fighting for trade deals that are fair and reciprocal and put America first,” Pence said in a speech in Versailles, Kentucky, which is near several bourbon distilleries.

“As the president said yesterday, when it comes to trade, the United States has been taken advantage of by too many countries for too long, and that’s not going to happen anymore.”

Afterward, Kentucky’s governor took a wait-and-see approach to Trump’s tariff talk.

“We don’t have any definite decision that has been made,” Republican Gov. Matt Bevin told reporters. “And the president does this. He likes to create dialogue, get people to talk.”

The Kentucky Distillers’ Association said this week that it’s premature to speculate on the potential impact to the state’s bourbon industry. But the group said that bourbon makers have prospered from exports.

The European Union says it’s ready to retaliate against the U.S. over Trump’s proposed tariffs, with targeted products including bourbon and other U.S. goods.

The distillers group said U.S. and EU spirits exporters have jointly benefited from duty-free access to each other’s markets for more than two decades.

“Any efforts to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. spirits exports to the EU will jeopardize this long-standing partnership, harm consumers through higher prices and more limited product availability and significantly threaten the distilling renaissance that is creating industry jobs and generating billions in capital investment,” the distillers group said in a statement earlier this week.

Brown-Forman Corp. CEO Paul Varga said Wednesday that the spirits company is monitoring the potential for retaliatory tariffs. During a conference call after the company posted its quarterly earnings, he said the Kentucky-based company is sharing its views with Washington.

Its brands include Woodford Reserve bourbon and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey.

Foreign markets account for slightly more than half of the company’s sales. But Varga noted that the overwhelming majority of its products are made in the United States.

“If all of this were to come to fruition, the irony, I feel, is that a company like Brown-Forman could be an unfortunate and unintended victim of a policy which, in part, is aimed at promoting something which Brown-Forman is a stellar example of: a committed, long-term American manufacturing company,” he said.

The Distilled Spirits Council recently reported that 2017 export revenues for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye whiskey products are projected to reach $1.1 billion. That would be the fifth time in six years that American whiskey exports topped $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Pence trumpeted the Republican tax cuts in a campaign-style speech to about 700 cheering supporters in Kentucky. Those tax cuts are emerging as a key issue in this year’s midterm elections as Republican’s try to keep their congressional majorities.

Most Americans will save money on their tax bills in coming years, with wealthier taxpayers saving the most, but Pence focused on the benefits for the working class, saying millions of people have received pay raises or bonuses that he attributed to tax cuts on businesses.

“After eight years of wages that just seemed to be stuck in neutral, Americans are seeing their paychecks rise today faster than any point in more than 10 years,” Pence said.

Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Ben Self had a different view, saying in a statement: “If the tax plan was actually helping people, they wouldn’t have to spend so much money on selling it to the American people.”

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