The following is an op-ed piece authored by Kentucky Chamber President Ashli Watts, Northern Kentucky Chamber President Brent Cooper, Greater Louisville Inc. President Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, and Commerce Lexington President Bob Quick.
2020 has been a year like no other, filled with unprecedented challenges and continued uncertainty. As we entered this new decade, Kentucky’s economy was growing, unemployment was low, and our workforce participation was rising. This growth ended when COVID-19 hit, and businesses were forced to close, scale back, and retool their operations to protect Kentuckians by stopping the spread of the virus.
During the 2021 legislative session, the business community will work with lawmakers to advance an agenda focused on economic recovery and getting Kentuckians back to work. The General Assembly will tackle many vital issues, including a budget, during the 30-day session, but we also encourage lawmakers to prioritize economic recovery and relief for businesses.
Unemployment numbers rose in Kentucky in the wake of COVID-19 due to mandated business closures and additional regulations. Kentucky’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) Trust Fund carried a balance of about $618 million before the pandemic, but the fund dwindled to $0 as the state continued to lead the nation in unemployment.
We are grateful Gov. Beshear has committed to allocate a portion of federal CARES Act dollars to the UI fund to begin paying back a federal loan of more than $800 million used to pay benefits. The funds will give much-needed relief to Kentucky employers. However, more support is required. We encourage the General Assembly to look at structural reforms to the UI system to minimize the cost to Kentucky businesses while protecting this vital support for employees.
Employers throughout the state answered the call to protect Kentuckians by closing their doors or significantly reducing operations, and now is the time for the state to protect them as they strive to restart the economy while recovery from this crisis is still underway.
Limited, targeted liability protections to prevent businesses, schools, and others from losing everything due to frivolous lawsuits are necessary to ensure a swift economic recovery.
One of the best ways to invest in Kentucky’s economy and get people back to work is to invest in our infrastructure. As a state heavily dependent on manufacturing, we are quickly becoming a logistics hub. That is why we must invest in our infrastructure assets to recover and come back stronger than before.
Due in part to the pandemic, Kentucky’s road fund lost $74.6 million compared to the previous fiscal year. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC) has stated that they need an additional $500 million per year to maintain and improve Kentucky’s roadways and another $200 million per year to maintain and replace deteriorating bridge structures across the state. The recent closure of the Brent Spence Bridge in Northern Kentucky, which transports 3% of the nation’s GDP daily, is proof that we are truly at a tipping point where increased investment is crucial.
The COVID-19 crisis has also made clear that broadband infrastructure is critical to economic development. It is imperative state leaders ensure all businesses and homes have access to adequate, high-speed internet for remote learning and work.
We encourage legislators to look to the future and invest in Kentucky’s infrastructure to support a growing economy and job creation.
Education and workforce development
In recent legislative sessions, the General Assembly has taken great strides to address the workforce challenges faced by Kentucky employers by investing in education and removing barriers to work. Lawmakers must ensure that this forward momentum does not come to a halt in 2021.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the state budget and revenue projections, lawmakers must prioritize investment in all education levels. Looking ahead, students and educators will need more support than ever to overcome the learning challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Lawmakers must also support critical workforce training initiatives, such as the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship program, and remove barriers to work by funding substance use disorder treatment and stabilizing and expanding Kentucky’s child care sector.
It is imperative employers have the tools they need to rebuild successfully to continue creating jobs for our citizens.
Addressing unemployment insurance and legal liability concerns while prioritizing infrastructure and workforce development funding are the best ways to expedite the recovery process, so Kentucky emerges from this pandemic stronger than ever.