LOUISVILLE — Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is a popular guy these days.
A proud Republican and likely gubernatorial candidate in 2015, Comer bookended his week with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell singing his praises on Monday and Sen. Rand Paul adding a verse to that song on Friday.
It could have gone the other way.
It was less than two weeks ago that Comer told a Somerset crowd that he “cannot be controlled,” warning unnamed party bosses about interfering in the governor’s race or trying to jump-start it early.
Pariah was possible. Popularity appears to be the result.
But if McConnell’s fawning at a Veteran’s Day event, where Comer announced a national drive for his department’s Homegrown by Heroes program, was a surprise, Paul’s kind words on Friday were not.
The commissioner was the only state representative to back Paul in his primary against former Secretary of State and McConnell pick Trey Grayson.
But he’s also winning friends in high places by doing something few politicians do: Giving tax money back to tax payers.
On Friday, Comer gathered a crowd at the Kentucky Exposition Center to watch him present state treasurer Todd Hollenbach with a check for $1.65 million to be returned to the state’s general fund.
Hollenbach, a Democrat, joined in the chorus of praise.
“In these cynical times, I think it’s important that when a public servant does a good thing they be recognized and applauded,” Hollenbach said. “In this instance, Commissioner Comer has managed to take a lemon and turn it into lemonade.”
Former commissioner and convicted felon Richie Farmer had requested and received the earmarked money from the statehouse to house and equip a fuel and pesticides testing lab.
Farmer sold the idea as a moneymaker for the state. When Comer took office it was losing $900,000 a year.
Comer shut down the lab, fired its nine employees and found a private sector business to do the same task for $300,000 a year. He also auctioned off the equipment, bringing in $2.1 million.
“And today I am very pleased to announce that for the first time that we could find in the history of Kentucky, we are returning 100 percent of an earmark back to the taxpayers of Kentucky,” Comer said to applause.
Friday’s event marked the second time in about a month that Comer drew attention on a matter of fiscal responsibility, following advice he said Paul gave him at the Kentucky-Louisville football game in September.
At the end of October, Comer won quiet applause for showing up at a budget meeting and announcing he would need $500,000 less of the $2 million planned for his department.
“[Paul] said, ‘you know, people talk about returning money, they talk about reducing the size of government, but you need to prove to the taxpayers in a quantifiable way how you’re saving money,’” Comer said.
He added that because of Paul’s “inspiration, we decided to take the plunge and hope for the best when we privatized” the fuel and pesticide quality inspections and auction off the equipment.
“I’m proud to be here with Commissioner Comer today, who is doing what government officials ought to do — return some money, try to find waste in government and give it back to the taxpayer,” Paul said.