By James C. Votruba
At a meeting Tuesday night of the Kentucky Tax Reform Commission hosted by Northern Kentucky University, I shared my thoughts on the importance of tax reform in the commonwealth.
I told them, quite simply, we need tax reform and we need it now. We need a 21st century approach to taxation that is both fair and balances budget cuts with investments in strategic, targeted areas that can produce a return. I can’t find a single state that has cut its way to prosperity.
You’re the tax experts. However, what I’ve learned over the past 15 years is that Kentucky is in a battle for its future. That battle will be won or lost based on our capacity to recruit and retain the talent needed to drive innovation essential for economic growth. Mark my words — over the next decade there will be some states that thrive and move forward while others fall further and further behind. Tax policy must contribute to our capacity to attract investment capital, new knowledge-based companies and the talent needed to drive them.
Let me give you an example from my own campus. Tuition increases over the past several years have done nothing more than replace state funding cuts. This impacts both access and affordability. Our programs in such areas as health professions and informatics cannot produce graduates fast enough to meet regional demand. However, both programs will need to be capped without targeted investments that allow growth. This growth cannot happen without a tax policy that allows for investment.
In addition to an enlightened and strategic tax reform plan, we need to reassess some of our strategies for moving Kentucky forward. In 1997, Kentucky embarked on the most ambitious postsecondary reform initiative in the nation. It has been 15 years since that reform was passed. In that period, the world has changed a lot and we’ve learned a lot. I believe it is time to revisit HB 1 with an eye toward more return on strategic investments and more accountability for outcomes.
I’ll leave you with this: education — from early childhood through college — is critically important if Kentucky hopes to compete. Investing in the full education continuum with clearly defined goals and accountability is an essential economic strategy. Across the education continuum, we are showing remarkable progress when compared to states against whom we compete. When I arrived in 1997, I heard one phrase over and over again when discussing national education rankings: “Thank god for Mississippi!” I don’t hear this anymore. We are on the move and the data supports it. To reduce our education investments at a time when such significant momentum is being achieved is foolhardy and places our future at risk.
We need a progressive tax reform strategy that will immediately allow for investment in both talent production and the research required to drive innovation and commercialization. Our future depends on it. Tax policy drives so many other dimensions of our commonwealth. For every choice you consider, ask yourself, “Does this weaken or strengthen our capacity to compete?”
Dr. James C. Votruba has served as president of Northern Kentucky University since 1997. During his tenure, NKU has emerged as one of the northern Kentucky region’s primary economic engines. Enrollment at the Highland Heights institution is at nearly 16,000 students. Dr. Votruba will retire at the end of July.