By John David Dyche
If Kentucky was a corporation and its Appalachian region was one of its business units, the shareholders (i.e.,the taxpayers) would demand one of two things. Either make a bold and dramatic change in leadership and direction to turn around the failing enterprise or close it.
Closure is not an option in this case (although there has been some compelling research about how Kentucky’s urban areas subsidize its rural ones and suggesting that residents of the countryside should move to the cities). So the only option is a new and different approach to economic development.
The Eastern Kentucky “summit” that Gov. Steve Beshear and Fifth District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., conducted recently in Pikeville was somewhat like a shareholder’s meeting. But that gathering, called “S.O.A.R.” for “Shaping Our Appalachian Region,” did not offer voting on either people or proposals.
Casting ballots that could impact the future of Eastern Kentucky’s long-suffering mountain areas must wait until the next two Novembers. Meanwhile there is nothing really wrong with yet another meeting “to share new ideas and recommendations.”
But such get-togethers will be a waste of time unless the participants are brutally honest about the nature and scope of the problems, the proposed solutions that have failed or not fully succeeded in the past, and what would actually constitute success. Yet much of what happened at S.O.A.R. was predictable with familiar actors reprising favorite roles.
Some would shower more taxpayer money on the region. The many billions in federal and state funds flushed through the area since high-profile 1960s visits of Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy and the governorship of Bert Combs have done some good, but also some harm.
These well-meaning efforts proved that government largesse and the big government liberal agenda has limited potential to produce the desired transformation. Yet some politicians, mostly in the Democratic Party, know only one word: “More!”
Other politicians, including some Republican leaders, incessantly sing another single note: “Coal!” But that black mineral has been a distinctly mixed blessing for decades.
Coal alone is not the answer, but despite its dire current situation and diminishing future prospects its day is not yet past either. The Obama administration’s war on coal is hurting the Appalachian economy and promises precious little positive environmental impact.
The coal lobby is wrong, however, to minimize the awful aesthetic, environmental, and quality of life effects of mountaintop removal mining. They must also face the fact that the long-term future for Eastern Kentucky coal is bleak regardless of what the Obama administration does.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s proposed “economic freedom zones” for depressed areas ranging from inner-city Detroit to Appalachian Eastern Kentucky is not really a new idea. Its intellectual pedigree traces back to the fertile mind and generous heart of the late, great Jack Kemp. Radically cutting taxes to spur investment is worth trying, but a broader array of other reforms applicable to the entire state would be even better.
The one big thing that has been constant over the centuries that Appalachian Eastern Kentucky has struggled is that Democrats have dominated Kentucky state government. The best bet for stimulating economic growth and diversification in Eastern Kentucky is not some specialized silver bullet to be shot into the heart of that area alone. It is a broader set of Republican policy reforms that have proved successful in other states.
Pro-growth tax reform. Right to work legislation. Abolishing prevailing wage laws. Charter schools. Changing teacher tenure. Merit pay for teachers. Economic incentives to better health. Constitutional limits on state debt and spending increases. Defined contribution public pensions. Tort reform. These are not panaceas for Appalachian problems, but would help.
Gov. Beshear and the mountain Democrats who run the state House of Representatives are obstacles to these reforms. They talk a good game about wanting to help Eastern Kentucky, but secure in their Frankfort bunkers they block real change and keep their political fiefdoms dependent on the dole and government handouts.
Those who benefit from the status quo will try to dismiss this assessment as mere partisanship. Those whose top priority is improving the living standards of poor Kentuckians will change state leadership and try these new approaches.
Some enterprises in crisis conduct “feel good” listening session with good intentions, but never take the tough steps necessary to really turn things around. Others actually make the changes to management and policies that are required to produce real results.
Kentucky has been the first kind for too long. We must act at the polls to ever become the other.