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Gasoline: the public option

Due to the opposition of all Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) does not include a public option– i.e., a government-run health insurance agency to compete with private health insurance companies.

Michael Steele, then chair of the Republican National Committee, was among many who denounced the public option as socialist (although surprisingly Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly liked the idea).

However the public option isn’t dead. It has emerged in (of all places) Somerset, Kentucky, where the city government has opened its own gasoline station.

The Somerset Fuel Center opened to the public selling regular unleaded gas for $3.36 a gallon, a bit lower than some nearby competitors. In the first three hours, about 75 customers fueled up at the no-frills stations, where there are no snacks, no repairs and only regular unleaded gas.

The mayor says the station was created in response to years of grumbling by townspeople about stubbornly high gas prices in Somerset, a city of about 11,000 near Lake Cumberland, a popular fishing and boating haven.

The venture got a thumbs-up from customers who let their vehicles reach near-empty in anticipation of the station’s opening.

“I’m tickled to death that they’re trying to do something,” Ed Bullock said as he filled up his car. “I’m glad they made the investment.”

The venture unnerved local filling station and convenience store operators suddenly competing with the city in this Republican stronghold. Critics said the government has no business imposing itself on the private sector, and one store owner branded it socialism.

Mayor Eddie Girdler, however, is standing firm behind the idea of the city-run station. The station on the outskirts of town was converted from use by government vehicles into one that can also cater to anyone looking to fill their tanks.

“We are one community that decided we’ve got backbone and we’re not going to allow the oil companies to dictate to us what we can and cannot do,” Girdler said. “We’re going to start out small. Where it goes from here we really don’t know.”

I said “of all places” because Somerset, Kentucky, is probably one of the most overwhelmingly Republican towns in the United States. In 2012 Mitt Romney carried Somerset with 80 percent of the vote, to Barack Obama’s 19 percent.

With Somerset, Kentucky, in the lead, can Berkeley, California, be far behind?

Statewide, Kentuckians voted for Romney over Obama by 22 percentage points. But unlike most Republican-leaning “red states,” Kentucky has fully implemented the Affordable Care Act, setting up its own health insurance exchange and agreeing to expansion of Medicaid for low-income residents. As a result hundreds of thousands of previously uninsured Kentuckians now have health insurance.

Some conservatives may be starting to wonder (to paraphrase the title of Thomas Frank’s book of a decade ago): What’s the matter with Kentucky?