Abandoned since 1972, the Old Taylor Distillery awaits restoration

August 31, 2013

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The Old Taylor Distillery at Millville in Woodford County near Frankfort was built in 1887 and has been essentially abandoned since 1972.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MILLVILLE — When Col. E. H. Taylor Jr. built his distillery along Glenn’s Creek in 1887, he had more in mind than a place to make good bourbon whiskey. He wanted to create an eye-popping showplace.

The Old Taylor Distillery was built from hand-cut limestone to resemble a castle, complete with turrets and ramparts. A spring where water was drawn to make bourbon was surrounded by an elegant pergola with stone columns. The property had elaborate sunken gardens and fish ponds.

Old Taylor’s 83-acre complex became a popular tourist attraction and a place for gatherings and weddings. Bill Samuels fondly remembers trips there as a child in the 1940s.

“It was the most fascinating place in Kentucky,” said Samuels, who grew up to build his father’s Maker’s Mark bourbon into an international brand. “I was taken to a lot of distilleries when I was a kid. That’s the one I remember.”

130828OldTaylor-TE0201But since 1972, when the distillery shut down, the property has been vandalized, neglected and reclaimed by nature. It is now one of Kentucky’s most fascinating industrial ruins.

I have been taking bicycle rides past this out-of-the-way spot between Versailles and Frankfort for years. And I have often wondered: With bourbon tourism booming, why hasn’t some distillery bought and restored Old Taylor as its showplace, just as Brown-Forman Corp. did with the Labrot & Graham distillery down the road?

E.H. Taylor, a longtime Frankfort mayor and descendant of Presidents James Madison and Zachary Taylor, was a bourbon industry leader and visionary. He died in 1922 at age 90. The distillery was sold in 1935 to National Distillers Corp., which later consolidated it with the adjacent Old Crow distillery.

Jim Beam later bought the distilleries, but shut them down in 1972 when bourbon sales slumped. Whiskey barrels continued to be aged in Old Taylor’s warehouses until the early 1990s. Old Crow’s warehouses are still in use.

A group of Atlanta-based investors bought the Old Taylor property in 2005. They took down a couple of the big warehouses to salvage and sell brick, stone and valuable heart-pine lumber.

The investors created an elaborate website that said profits from the salvage business would go toward restoration of the distillery. But when the housing boom went bust, the restoration never happened.

The property is now for sale, with an asking price of $1.5 million. Last week, I toured the ruins with Realtor Hill Parker and Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association and an avid preservationist.

“I actually had a dream the other night that we had a Kickstarter campaign and restored it,” said Gregory, who estimates it would take $30 million or more to fix up the place and turn it back into a distillery and entertainment venue.

At the moment, the Old Taylor Distillery is more of a nightmare than a dream. Vandals have done significant damage over the years, smashing windows, throwing stone blocks through the roof and generally trashing the place. An on-site caretaker now tries to prevent further damage.

Where vandals left off, nature did its work. The property includes a brick-and-stone warehouse that is one of the largest in Kentucky — four stories high and the length of two football fields. But trees, vines and weeds have swallowed the huge building, all but hiding it from view.

“The first thing you would have to do is come in with a tanker truck of Roundup and see what you have under all this,” Gregory said, referring to the powerful herbicide.

Surprisingly, most of the buildings look structurally sound. The brick and stone walls are solid and crack-free. Old-growth timbers and woodwork seem to have suffered little decay despite decades of neglect. One exception is a brick office building across the road. Its façade might be saved, but the interior has crumbled since most of the roof collapsed.

Parker said several groups of investors wanting to start small “craft” distilleries have recently inspected the property. The morning we were there, technicians for one potential buyer were assessing the lead paint and asbestos hazards.

“It’s a great property,” Parker said. “But there are significant challenges.”

Gregory said Old Taylor would make a great “boutique” distillery and could have considerable cache as a tourist attraction. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail of distillery tours attracted 509,000 visitors last year.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a buyer soon,” Gregory said. “Someone who will fix this place up and put it on the Bourbon Trail.”

 

 

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Doctor has seen a lot, from World War II to 1,000 newborns

July 31, 2013

FRANKFORT — When we recall history, we often think of famous leaders, pioneers and heroes. But history is mostly shaped by ordinary men and women just trying to do their best under the circumstances.

I was reminded of that recently when a friend introduced me to Dr. James T. Ramsey of Frankfort. Ramsey, 91, was a child of the Great Depression who grew up in a small, northeast Ohio town.

“We had a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill and that was about it,” he said.

“We were Methodists, and my mother was bent on me being a Methodist minister,” he said. “She somehow located Asbury College in Wilmore. Spent all of her inheritance on the first year’s tuition. After that, I was on my own.”

ramseyBut Ramsey preferred chemistry and physics to theology. He wanted to become a doctor. “I guess it was my admiration for the old country doctor who delivered me in the home,” he said.

Ramsey’s senior year ended early when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like virtually all of his classmates, he joined the military.

“But I didn’t want to die in the trenches,” he said. “I always felt it was a cowardly decision that I wanted to fly.”

He was hardly a coward. Ramsey joined the Army Air Corps and proved to be a talented pilot. By May 1944, he was in Italy piloting a B-24 Liberator. He and his crew flew 50 bombing missions all over occupied Europe. Then he returned stateside to train other bomber pilots.

What did Ramsey learn from World War II?

“Do the best you can with what assignment you get,” he said.

After he had completed cadet training, but before he went to war, Ramsey made a quick trip back to Central Kentucky. Kathleen Horn of Lexington was assigned to meet him at the train station. After that meeting, they began a correspondence.

“She was instructed by her friends that she ought to write to service people,” he said. “I happened to be the service person she wrote to. I came back through Lexington and we spent some time together on furloughs.”

After the war, they married and he enrolled in medical school at the University of Louisville. Like most of his classmates, the government paid for his education. Otherwise, he said, he could never have afforded to become a doctor.

“I think the GI Bill was great,” Ramsey said. “I’m sure the cost has been repaid in taxes many times over.”

After a residency in Cincinnati, Ramsey began a medical practice in Owen County, where there was then no hospital, x-ray machine or laboratory. He did his own lab work, with help from a local veterinarian.

Two years later, Ramsey completed a mini-residency in anesthesiology and moved to Frankfort. Over the next three decades, he practiced anesthesiology, general medicine and obstetrics, delivering more than 1,000 babies.

“A baby’s birth is a miracle, and I felt that way with every one,” Ramsey said, adding that many of them have kept in contact with him over the years.

Ramsey served on the school board, helped start Frankfort’s first nursing home and admitted the first black patient to King’s Daughters Hospital in 1959 after a federal loan for an expansion required that the hospital be desegregated.

“Prior to that, the only hospitalization we had available to black people was a dwelling house, and not a very good one,” he said, referring to a frame house that in 1915 had become Winnie A. Scott Memorial Hospital.

“It was two-story and we had rigged an operating and delivery room on the second floor, so we had to carry people up the stairs,” he said. “I thought that was disgraceful for the whole community.”

Ramsey and his wife had seven children — five boys and two girls — all of whom went on to successful careers. He retired from medical practice in 1993, but continued doing consulting work until a year ago. His wife died in May 2010.

When we sat down in his living room to talk recently, Ramsey said he didn’t see anything remarkable about his life. Yet, he fought a war, raised a family and took care of a community. Like many of his generation, Jim Ramsey helped make America what it is today.

 


Essay: John Bradford, Kentucky’s pioneer journalist

June 11, 2013

This essay was originally written for the May 22 symposium, Words in a Changing World: from Bradford to Bloggers, at the Center for the Written Word at Cardome Center in Georgetown.

 

On August 11, 1787, the first newspaper to be published west of Pittsburgh hit the streets of Lexington, Kentucky.  It was a modest thing, printed on a four-page fold about the size of letter sheets. The Kentucke Gazette carried a few news items from elsewhere, an advertisement and an apology from its publisher. The 38-year-old publisher had little or no training as a printer, reporter, writer or editor. But he did understand deadlines.  “My customers will excuse my first publication,” he wrote, “as I am much hurried to get an impression by the time appointed.”  The rookie journalist then offered excuses.  Most of his type had been jumbled on its way to Lexington, he wrote.  His brother had purchased the type and a printing press in Pennsylvania and accompanied it down the Ohio River on a flatboat. The equipment made the final leg of its journey to Lexington over a rough road from what is now Maysville. If jumbled type were not bad enough, the publisher complained that his “only assistant” —his brother — had been sick for 10 days and was of no help whatsoever.

The Kentucke Gazette may have had an rough start 225 years ago, but it began a long and illustrious newspaper tradition in Kentucky. The Gazette’s publisher was Kentucky’s first journalist — and so much more.  John Bradford was a Renaissance man of the early Western frontier: a land surveyor, Indian fighter, politician, moral philosopher,  tavern owner, sheriff, civic host, community booster, postal service entrepreneur, real estate speculator, subdivision developer, mechanic and mathematician. And all of that was in addition to his primary work, which made seminal contributions to development of the written word in Kentucky.  In addition to writing and publishing the state’s first newspaper, Bradford produced Kentucky’s first books, was an organizer of the first public library and operated one of the first bookstores. He also was one of the first historians of Kentucky’s pioneer era and the chief advocate for, and longtime chairman of, Kentucky’s first institution of higher learning, Transylvania University.

So, it seems fitting that as we gather at Cardome today to reflect on the past, present and future of journalism and the written word in Kentucky, we begin by remembering John Bradford. For 45 of this state’s most formative years, he was in the middle of everything.

John Bradford was born in June 1749 near Warrenton in Northern Virginia, the second child and eldest son of Daniel Bradford and Alice Morgan. At the age of 21, he married Eliza James, the daughter of a respected Virginia planter. They had five sons and four daughters. Like his father, Bradford became a land surveyor. He practiced his trade in Virginia for eight years, except for possible brief service in the Revolutionary War in 1776. Like many Virginians, he was hungry for land and he had heard about the bounty that lay across the Appalachian mountains. So, in the fall of 1779, Bradford left his family and went to the western reaches of Virginia — then called Kentucke with an “e” at the end — where he worked as a surveyor. During this time, he also became an Indian fighter, taking part in the campaign against the Native American towns of Chillicothe and Piqua in what is now Ohio.

While in Kentucky, Bradford and his younger brother, Fielding, made claims on 6,000 acres of rich Bluegrass land along Cane Run and North Elkhorn creeks in what is now Fayette and Scott counties. That land is said to have included what is now the campus of Cardome. Bradford then returned home, and, in the spring of 1785, moved his family west. They lived in a cabin, and later a handsome brick home, near the corner of what is now Russell Cave Road and Ironworks Pike north of Lexington. But John Bradford wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. He soon sought out a new business opportunity — something he would do frequently for the rest of his life.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

John Bradford portrait in the collection of the Bodley-Bullock House, Lexington Junior League. Image courtesy of University of Kentucky Special Collections.

Kentuckians have always loved to complain about the government. Many prominent pioneers of the 1780s thought that Virginia’s government was ignoring their needs, especially when it came to security from Indian attacks. Meeting in convention at Danville on December 30, 1784, these settlers decided it would be in their best interests to begin the process of separating from Virginia and forming their own state.  They also decided that, to be successful, they needed public opinion in Kentucky on their side. They needed information. They needed publicity. They needed a newspaper.

A year later, the convention appointed Gen. James Wilkinson, future governor Christopher Greenup and John Cobern to form a committee to find a printer from the East willing to move to Kentucky.  The committee tried to recruit printers John Dunlap in Philadelphia and Miles Hunter in Richmond, Va., but both declined. It was at this point that John Bradford stepped forward and offered to do the job if the convention could promise him public printing work. With this assurance, the Bradford brothers went to Philadelphia to buy a printing press. On their way home, they stopped in Pittsburgh and bought some type from John Scull, who had recently established the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains. John Bradford then headed home, leaving his brother in Pittsburgh for three months to learn the basics of printing. (It may not surprise you to learn that, after a couple of years, Fielding Bradford decided he no longer wanted to work for big brother and left the business.)

Some statehood convention delegates assumed that Bradford would set up his printing shop in Danville, where they met each year. But in what we now would call an economic-development incentive, the trustees of Lexington promised to give Bradford the use of a prime piece of downtown real estate for as long as he operated his press and newspaper in their town. Bradford accepted the offer, and, as there was no building on the promised property, also accepted the town’s offer to set up his print shop in the back room of the log courthouse at the corner of Main Street and Broadway, where Victorian Square now stands.

The Kentucke Gazette began publication in August 1787 with 180 subscribers. Bradford charged 18 shilling per year for a subscription and three shillings for an advertisement of moderate length. Because hard cash was scarce on the Kentucky frontier, Bradford wrote that he also would take the following goods as payment: “corn, wheat, country-made linen, linsey, sugar, whiskey, ash flooring and cured bacon.”  The Kentucke Gazette patterned itself after the Pittsburgh newspaper, with three columns of type on its small page.  The newspaper changed the spelling of Kentucky on its masthead — ending it with a “y” instead than an “e” — in 1789 after the Virginia General Assembly officially did so.

Early on, the Gazette was the only newspaper within 500 miles of Lexington, which made it a must-read, at least for those who could read. A year before the government provided postal service in Kentucky, Bradford employed a small network of “post riders” to deliver the Gazette to Limestone (now Maysville), Harrodsburg, Danville and other Central Kentucky towns. The post riders also carried letters and small packages as their saddle bags allowed. Bradford kept a letter box at his Lexington office where correspondence carried by the post riders could be picked up by the intended recipients.

The Gazette was first published weekly, then twice and later three times a week. Paper was scarce, since it had to be imported from the East during the newspaper’s early years. But by 1793, the Gazette’s paper was made in Georgetown by another early Kentucky entrepreneur, Elijah Craig, whose other claims to fame were as a Baptist minister — and as an early distiller of bourbon whiskey.

Historians who have studied the surviving issues of Bradford’s Gazette have often remarked on the lack of what we would now call local news. There was little in the way of information about everyday life and happenings in Lexington and around the Bluegrass frontier. Perhaps, some historians have speculated, that was because the place was so small and sparsely populated at the time that everybody already knew the local news by the time the paper came out.  The Gazette’s pages were filled instead with weeks-old, and sometimes months-old, accounts of national and international happenings, as well as with stenographic accounts of local and state government activities.  Unfortunately, Bradford’s coverage of Kentucky’s quest for statehood mostly consisted of publishing the official resolutions of the separation conventions. While the Gazette’s pages occasionally included philosophic discussions about Kentucky’s political needs, historians have noted that Bradford provided little journalistic detail or insight into the process of seeking statehood or personalities who were involved in the movement.

Bradford was a Democrat in the mold of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and the Gazette reflected his political views. An Episcopalian, he also was a man of liberal religious views. He refused to allow the Gazette to be drawn into the sectarian theological disputes that raged among Protestant Christian denominations in early Kentucky. Bradford, whose nickname in later years was “Old Wisdom”, would occasionally offer bits of moral philosophy in print, a la Benjamin Franklin. Here is one example: “Narrow minds are like crooked bottles; the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out.”

Bradford had his pet issues, as every editor does, and they were given considerable coverage: He was very interested in horses. He hated the federal government’s excise tax on whiskey. He was outraged by John Jay’s proposed treaty that would have given Spain navigational control of the Mississippi River. And, most of all, he was obsessed with Indians and the threat they posed to settlement of Kentucky. This was the era of Manifest Destiny, and nobody embraced that philosophy more than John Bradford.

The Gazette also served as a valuable forum for public notices, some of which could be quite humorous, such as the one from Jan. 29, 1791, in which a Charles Bland wrote that he would not pay a note given to William Turner for three second-rate cows until Turner returned a rifle, blanket and tomahawk he had borrowed. My favorite public notice is this one from April 6, 1793: “Taken up by the subscriber, on Clear Creek Fayette County, a dunn mare two years old last spring; her mane and tail black with a black list along her back, a natural trotter, 13 hands 1 inch high, apprised at £3.10. Hawkins Kearby.”  Unlike the other notice, this one is not humorous, or of any importance except to the owner of the lost horse. But it is my favorite because Hawkins Kearby was my great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather and this Kentucke Gazette notice is the only written record I have of him.

After a couple of moves, the Gazette’s offices came in July 1795 to spacious quarters in a two-story brick building on Main Street that had been Kentucky’s first statehouse. At this location, where it would remain for 40 years, Bradford published Kentucky’s first books. After a compilation of state laws, he produced many other books, including an annual Kentucky Almanac and the work of Kentucky’s first poet, Thomas Johnson. Bradford’s offices also included a bookstore, which became a popular gathering place for white men to discuss news, politics and public affairs.

The Gazette’s first newspaper competitor appeared in 1795, when Bradford’s former employee, Thomas H. Stewart, started the Kentucky Herald. (And in the first example of monopoly newspaper consolidation in Kentucky, Bradford bought out Stewart in 1802 and shut down the Herald.) As Kentucky grew in the late 1700s, four more newspapers opened in Frankfort and the town of Washington, near Maysville. By the end of 1811, some 30 newspapers had been established in Kentucky. In addition to Lexington, Frankfort and Washington, their locations included Bardstown, Shelbyville, Danville, Russellville, Louisville, Paris, Lancaster, Stanford, Richmond and Georgetown.

Bradford trained several of his five sons as printers and journalists, and the family holdings expanded. Son Daniel took over the Gazette from April 1802 until it was operated by others between late 1809 and 1814. Bradford’s eldest son, Benjamin, bought the Kentucky Journal in Frankfort in 1795. Bradford and son James operated the Guardian of Freedom in Frankfort from 1798 until 1806. Both of those Frankfort newspapers essentially republished the Gazette’s content, but may have given the Bradford family a measure of influence in the state capital.

After several changes in management and ownership at the Kentucky Gazette, Bradford returned as editor and publisher late in his life, from April 1825 until June 1827. Perhaps that was because he had one last job to do.  Between August 1826 and January 1829, Bradford published 66 essays in the Gazette that he simply called “Notes on Kentucky.”  These articles were Bradford’s journalistic memoirs, his chronicle of a pioneer era that was slipping away from Kentucky’s collective memory as others of his generation died off.

The historical value of Bradford’s “Notes” was realized immediately. George Washington Stipp got to know Bradford while living in Lexington as a medical student at Transylvania University. Stipp was so impressed with Bradford’s essays that, after returning home to Xenia, Ohio, in 1827, he published the first 23 of them in a small book he called: The Western Miscellany, or, AccouGazettents Historical, Biographical, and Amusing. The full “Notes” were edited by historian Thomas D. Clark and published in 1993 by the University Press of Kentucky in a book titled: The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky.

Bradford’s “Notes” still make interesting reading, especially his tales of early exploration and the settlers’ battles with Indians. As I mentioned, Bradford had always been obsessed with the threat Native Americans posed to the settlers who came in and took their land. In his book, Clark takes a shot at Bradford’s journalistic objectivity on this subject, noting that Indian atrocities against settlers were always portrayed as heinous, criminal acts. But when it came to the atrocities settlers committed against the Indians — of which there were many — the same value judgments never applied. “One can only speculate,” Clark wrote, “on what a literate ‘Indian Bradford’ might have written had he published a series of notes on settler-Indian relations in the last quarter of the 18th century. In reality, they had more to fear from the ‘Long Knives’ than the ‘Long Knives had to fear from the ‘Braves.’”

John Bradford packed a lot more than journalism into his long career. He spent many years as the equivalent of Lexington’s mayor. As the longtime chairman of the town trustees, Bradford was the official host to visiting dignitaries, such as in 1792, when Isaac Shelby was sworn in as Kentucky’s first governor, and in 1825, when President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited Lexington.  Bradford also served as a state legislator from Lexington and as the High Sheriff of Fayette County.

Bradford had many business interests beyond publishing. He was an active land speculator — and, like many early Kentucky land speculators, was often involved in lawsuits over claims and titles. He also was an entrepreneur with broad interests. In 1801, he purchased a tavern in Frankfort that he owned for several years. He developed a subdivision off North Limestone Street in 1812. The next year, he built a steam-operated flour mill and cotton factory on Vine Street in Lexington, just west of Broadway.  One account says that Bradford, a talented mechanic and mathematician, designed and built the machinery himself.  In 1816, Bradford partnered with Robert Wickliffe to build a large public warehouse on Broadway, between Vine and Main streets, leasing the land from the town trustees.

Throughout his career, Bradford was a tireless booster of Lexington. In 1796, he was one of the founders of the Lexington Public Library. The next year, he called a meeting to organize the Lexington Society for the Promotion of Emigration. Bradford enticed John James Dufour to come to Lexington to set up the Kentucky Vineyard Society, of which he was one of the incorporators in 1799, in the hope of developing a local wine industry. Bradford also was an early advocate for the emancipation of slaves — a very unpopular idea among white men in Lexington at that time and for several decades to come. Even so, Bradford was also a slave owner.

Of all Bradford’s public roles beyond journalism, perhaps none was more influential than his longtime positions as trustee and chairman of Transylvania University.  In the book, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, which was published last year by the University Press of Kentucky, my daughter, Mollie, and I wrote a chapter about Transylvania — its meteoric rise under President Horace Holley and its subsequent fall after he left Kentucky. Who was the man behind the scenes of Holley’s success story? John Bradford.

After the steamboat’s invention made two-way river navigation possible, Lexington lost its economic edge to the river cities of Louisville and Cincinnati. Desperate for economic development, Bradford championed making Lexington the “Athens of the West” by investing in education and culture. The key to doing that, he believed, was turning tiny Transylvania into the great university of western America. That would require an outstanding president with vision, he believed. The man Bradford wanted was Horace Holley, a Yale graduate and up-and-coming minister in Boston. Against all odds, including a bitterly divided Transylvania Board of Trustees, Bradford convinced Holley to move to Lexington in 1818. Within a few years, Holley transformed Transylvania into one of America’s most acclaimed universities. When, late in life, Thomas Jefferson was seeking models for his new University of Virginia, he looked to Holley’s Transylvania. Despite this success, though, Holley was run out of Kentucky by religious conservatives, anti-intellectualism and a governor, Joseph Desha, who wanted to spend state money on roads rather than higher education. Bradford’s success and failure with Horace Holley would echo through Kentucky history for nearly two centuries.

Although Bradford kept his rural home “Fairfield” until the year before his death, he spent most of his years as publisher living in a handsome house on the corner of Second and Market Streets in Lexington. He bought the house from Thomas Harte, a prosperous early settler and father-in-law of Henry Clay. It was in that house that John Bradford died on March 22, 1830. His burial place is uncertain.

I mention Bradford’s downtown home, because it would play an important role in Lexington’s modern history 125 years after the publisher’s death. In 1955, Bradford’s house was demolished for a parking lot. The ensuing outrage led to the creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Kentucky Gazette was sold out of the Bradford family in 1840, a decade after the pioneer publisher’s death. It ceased publication in 1848 after its fortunes and influence declined under an owner from Louisville.

Unfortunately, no complete file of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette remains. The Lexington Public Library has perhaps the best collection of original copies, although it does not include the first one. The last known first issue was destroyed in a fire more than a century ago at the Cheapside office of H. Howard Gratz, who revived the Kentucky Gazette after the Civil War and published a newspaper by that name for nearly 50 years. Thanks to modern digital technology, you can read the surviving copies of John Bradford’s Kentucky Gazette on your computer at the Kentucky Digital Library site.

SOURCES

The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky, Thomas D. Clark (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1993)

The Pioneer Press of Kentucky, William Henry Perrin (J.P. Morton & Co., Louisville, 1888)

John Bradford Bicentennial, C. Frank Dunn (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1947)

John Bradford and the Kentucky Gazette, J. Winston Coleman (The Filson Club History Quarterly, Louisville, 1960)

The History of Pioneer Lexington, 1779-1806, Charles R. Staples (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1939, republished with a foreward by Thomas D. Clark, 1996)

Liberal Kentucky, 1780-1828, Niels Henry Sonne (Columbia University Press, New York, 1939)

Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, edited by James C. Klotter and Daniel Rowland. Chapter 9: Horace Holley and the Struggle for Kentucky’s Mind and Soul, by Tom Eblen and Mollie Eblen. (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2012)

Kentucky Settlement and Statehood, 1750-1800, George Morgan Chinn (Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, 1975)

Stories of Kentucky from the Life and Works of John Wilson Townsend, Dorothy Edwards Townsend, The Keystone Printery, Lexington, 1972

The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, editor (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1992)


State bicycle summit planned, and money available for projects

March 26, 2013

I have been bicycling in the countryside for fun and exercise for nearly two decades. One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2013 was to make most of my short, in-town trips by bicycle once spring arrived.

Spring arrived last Wednesday. Despite below-freezing temperatures in the morning and a cold afternoon wind, two trips downtown and one to the University of Kentucky campus went well. Since then, it has snowed. And snowed.

Oh well, one of these days the weather will catch up to the calendar. When it does, more Kentuckians will be looking to bicycles as a means of transportation, an enjoyable form of exercise and even a vehicle for economic development.

To jump-start those efforts, the Kentucky Rails to Trails Council and several other organizations are planning the first Kentucky Walk Bike Summit, April 11 and 12 at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort.

WalkBikeThe summit was modeled after the Lexington Bike Summit that Mayor Jim Newberry’s administration helped put together in 2007. It gave momentum to several Lexington efforts, including new bike lanes and the highly popular Legacy Trail.

Bill Gorton, a Lexington lawyer who is chairman of the state Bicycle and Bikeways Commission, said the goal of the summit is to share stories and strategies about successful projects around the state with people in other communities who want to do their own.

“We want to create a place where people get together and meet other people and share the stories about how they made these things happen,” Gorton said. “We’re hoping some of the smaller communities will work with the Transportation Cabinet and other sources of funding and say, ‘You know what, we can do that!'”

Among an extensive list of speakers and panelists are Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson, a cyclist who as Louisville mayor began a 100-mile trail around the city; Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock; David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists; and representatives of state cycling groups and the Federal Highway Administration.

Gorton said the Transportation Cabinet has become more supportive of bike lanes and trails, such as the one connecting Lexington and Wilmore that was built along old U.S. 68 when the road was widened several years ago.

“It took the engineer in the district to say, ‘Hey, we can do that,'” Gorton said. “But these things need continued attention and advocacy.”

In addition to making existing roads safer for cyclists, Gorton said recreational trails can become important economic development assets. They are a part of the Beshear administration’s focus on “adventure tourism.”

One such effort involves converting abandoned rail lines into trails. Kentucky has only about 30 miles of those trails scattered around the state, and most are short. The most ambitious project now under way is the Dawkins Line, which would be a 36-mile trail in Breathitt, Johnson and Magoffin counties.

“There’s lots to see and experience in rural Kentucky, and by creating a destination like that, it can serve as the nucleus of other tourist activities,” Gorton said. “If you could link these with Kentucky State Parks, which are some of the best in the nation, there are great opportunities. You’ve got to have people see the potential.”

For more information and to register for the Kentucky Walk Bike Summit, go to Kywalkbikesummit.com.

I see the tourism potential for road cycling in Central Kentucky every Memorial Day weekend, when I run a rest stop at the annual Horsey Hundred ride. The Bluegrass Cycling Club, of which I am a member, has sponsored the two-day recreational ride for 35 years.

The Horsey Hundred is two days of supported rides of between 26 and 100 miles. The event attracts about 2,000 participants each year. I have met people at the Horsey who came from across North America, including a big group of Canadians who spend more than a week each year riding our back roads (and spending money at our hotels, restaurants and stores).

The Bluegrass Cycling Club makes money on the Horsey and gives most of it away to bicycle-related philanthropic projects in Central Kentucky. Grants are in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. For more information about applying, go to Bgcycling.org. The application deadline for this funding cycle is May 15.

Surely by then the snow will be gone.


Capitol Education Center shows progress can penetrate coal politics

February 17, 2013

A group of Louisville high school students in Frankfort to attend the I Love Mountains Day events toured the Capitol Education Center roof, which has solar panels, a wind turbine and a roof garden. Below, an interactive exhibit inside shows how much less power LED and compact florescent lights use than traditional incandescent bulbs. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

FRANKFORT — Each year, I notice more young people attending I Love Mountains Day. The rally against mountaintop-removal coal mining is organized by the citizens group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and it has been a Valentine’s tradition since 2006.

The young people join hundreds of their elders from across Kentucky in marching to the Capitol steps to hear speakers that have included writer Wendell Berry and actress Ashley Judd. This year’s main speaker was writer Silas House.

Before the speeches, many marchers visit legislators and urge them to curb the coal industry’s worst environmental abuses, to no avail.

But this year, there was something new for the young people to see: the Capitol Education Center, which had its grand opening Feb. 8. The center was the brainchild of First Lady Jane Beshear, and it is located in a formerly vacant building beside the Capitol that once housed heating and cooling equipment.

Beshear thought the 60,000 students and teachers who visit the Capitol each year needed a place to rest and eat their lunch. Then, the former teacher realized that this recycled building could play a role in teaching students about one of the most important issues facing Kentucky’s future: environmental sustainability.

The building got a “green” renovation that included recycled materials and energy-efficient technology. Solar panels and a wind turbine that feed into the utility grid were installed on the roof. Rain water is recycled to water a roof garden that will provide food for the Governor’s mansion kitchen.

The Kentucky Environmental Education Council coordinated a dozen universities and state agencies in developing interactive multimedia exhibits for the building. They teach students about Kentucky history, civics and geography — but mainly about energy efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The project was funded with $1.1 million from the Finance Cabinet and a $250,000 donation from Duke Energy. General Electric donated appliances for a commercial kitchen that Beshear hopes to use for demonstrations of healthy cooking and eating. (For more information, go to: Cec.ky.gov.)

In an interview, Beshear said these issues are “so important for the future. The more we as a state get into energy efficiency and alternative sources, the better off we’ll be.”

This education center is outstanding, and the First Lady’s vision for it is inspired. But it was hard to ignore the irony when I took a tour on I Love Mountains Day.

That event was created eight years ago to push for the so-called “stream saver” bill, which would ban coal companies from burying streams with mining debris. KFTC says the practice has obliterated more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian waterways.

But thanks to the coal industry’s enormous clout in Frankfort, the proposed legislation has gone nowhere. Most elected state officials proudly call themselves “friends of coal”. That friendship, which comes with lots of campaign cash, has always meant that public health, mine safety and environmental stewardship take a back seat to coal company profits.

Kentucky’s coal industry is in decline because of depleted reserves, cheap natural gas and the Environmental Protection Agency’s newfound willingness to do its job. But, like the National Rifle Association, the coal industry has always fought every attempt at common-sense regulation. Anyone who threatens the industry’s freedom to mine with impunity is branded as an enemy of coal.

There was an added emphasis for this year’s I Love Mountains Day: House Bill 170, which would require utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and put more emphasis on energy-efficiency programs.

In short, this bill, sponsored by Democrats Kelly Flood of Lexington and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would put into law some of the good ideas showcased at the new Capitol Education Center.

Change is hard, and progress can be slow. But I can’t help but be encouraged when I attend I Love Mountains Day or see something like the Capitol Education Center. Politicians will always be captive to power and money, I suppose, but it is good to see other Kentuckians working for a better future.

Few legislators have the courage to attend I Love Mountains Day, and the coal industry would go after any governor who dared show his face there.

But it is perhaps worth pointing out what Gov. Steve Beshear was doing shortly before the crowd arrived for I Love Mountains Day. He was in the Capitol rotunda with former Wildcat basketball star Derek Anderson, calling for legislation to create a statewide public smoking ban.

If you had told me 20 years ago that a Kentucky governor would do such a thing, I would have said you were crazy.

 


Photos from today’s ‘I Love Mountains’ rally in Frankfort

February 14, 2013

I went to the annual “I Love Mountains” march and rally at the State Capitol today to gather material for my Sunday column — and to take photos. Here are a few of them:

 

Kentucky author Silas House, center, led the annual “I Love Mountains Day” march down Capitol Avenue to the State Capitol. The event was sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in opposition to mountaintop-removal and other destructive forms of coal mining. Several hundred people attended. Many marchers this year were advocating for two pieces of proposed legislation: one would limit coal mine waste dumped into streams; the other would require more use of renewable energy by utilities in Kentucky.

Many children brought homemade signs. 

Eric Sutherland of Lexington, center, was among those cheering the rally’s speakers.

Writer Silas House, on the steps of the State Capitol, urged citizens to “clean this house” of politicians who do the bidding of the coal industry at the expense of Appalachia’s people and communities. 

Kentucky author Wendell Berry, right, shares a laugh with disabled coal miner Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, who spoke at the rally.

Ella Corder, a student at Meece Middle School in Somerset, waited for applause to die down so she could read the essay that won her a contest sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

Kentucky writers Bobbie Ann Mason, left, and Ed McClanahan were among hundreds who participated.

Daniel Mullins, 10, of Berea, makes his feelings known.

A Valentine’s Day reminder 

 


Kentucky should embrace the creativity, if not the slogan

January 6, 2013

Kentucky kicks ass. Often, unfortunately, its own.

To stay with anatomical metaphors, Kentuckians are good at shooting ourselves in the foot. We consider creative people to be a thorn in our side, because new ideas can be a pain in the neck.

So I wasn’t surprised at the Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism’s tone-deaf response to three 30-something advertising men from Lexington who suggested that “Kentucky Kicks Ass” would be a more effective state marketing slogan than “Unbridled Spirit.”

The suggestion came from Kentucky for Kentucky, a little company formed two years ago by Griffin VanMeter of Bullhorn Creative, Whit Hiler of Cornett-IMS and fellow Lexington native Kent Carmichael, who works for Energy BBDO in Chicago.

Kentucky for Kentucky began as a hobby — an online platform for celebrating the young men’s pride in their state, its people, places, history and “general awesomeness.”

They started with a Facebook page and website. Then, in the fall of 2011, they drew national attention with an unsuccessful online campaign to raise $3.5 million for a commercial promoting Kentucky on the Super Bowl telecast.

Their kick-ass branding idea was unveiled last month in a cheeky YouTube video that also attracted national attention. In the video, Hiler and VanMeter argued that the “Unbridled Spirit” slogan state government has used since 2004 is, well, lame.

(Maybe so, but it is a big improvement over “It’s that Friendly,” which appeared on Kentucky license plates from 2002-2005 along with a smiley-faced sun that looked like it belonged in a Walmart ad.)

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys hired Lexington artists Brian and Sara Turner of Cricket Press to design a cool Kentucky Kicks Ass logo, which they have printed on T-shirts and other merchandise for sale on their website, Kentuckyforkentucky.com.

They also created some sample tourism ads that cleverly promote Kentucky’s places and culture while minimizing the word they acknowledge may offend some people.

State tourism officials were not amused.

“We certainly would not sanction or endorse that phraseology,” spokesman Pat Stipes told a USA Today reporter. “These guys are Kentucky natives and they love the state. But they have a different constituency. Which is no one.”

For these ambitious marketers, that fuddy-duddy response was a gift.

“We couldn’t have asked for anything better,” VanMeter said. “It really gave this a lot more legs than it had.”

The controversy generated even more press coverage — and a lot of orders for Kentucky Kicks Ass T-shirts. VanMeter also has received emails from organizations within Kentucky, and as far away as Arizona, seeking creative help for their own rebranding efforts.

State Tourism Commissioner Mike Mangeot sent the guys a letter offering congratulations for a slogan that has “generated a lot of buzz about Kentucky and all our beautiful Commonwealth has to offer.” But he insisted they clarify that state government neither sought nor sanctioned their work.

The Kentucky for Kentucky guys replied to Mangeot with a letter from their lawyer, Scott White, saying they never meant to imply such a thing.

The letter also included an open-records request for all “emails, notes, written correspondence, memoranda” and any other communication with state government discussing his clients and their slogan. White said state officials had not responded as of Friday.

When I called tourism officials for comment, spokesman Gil Lawson offered only this statement: “We applaud the creativity and efforts of these three gentlemen. It’s great that they support their home state of Kentucky.”

I hope that when the Kentucky for Kentucky guys receive a response to their open-records request, it will include internal communication among high-ranking state officials that goes something like this:

“Our strategy worked perfectly! By playing the role of clueless bureaucrats we generated a lot of free publicity for Kentucky. Of course, we can’t actually endorse their slogan. We would rather be boring than take the chance of offending anyone. But what can we do to quietly support this kind of home-grown creativity?”


Tax reform group has some good ideas; will they go anywhere?

December 10, 2012

Tax reform in Kentucky has always reminded me of that old quip about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

After nearly a year of study, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform that Gov. Steve Beshear appointed to study Kentucky’s tax code and suggest changes finished its work last Thursday and announced recommendations. A final report is due to the governor by Dec. 15.

Will Beshear embrace his task force’s recommendations and try to sell them to the public and legislators? Will the General Assembly’s leaders exercise the leadership needed to build political consensus and make change happen?

You have to give the task force credit. Rather than proposing safe but inadequate “revenue neutral” tax reform, task force members had the courage to recommend a plan that would add $690 million in revenue during the first year.

That’s still short of what Kentucky needs, but it’s a start. Pension obligations will eat up at least $350 million and the state budget has already been cut a dozen times for a total of more than $1.6 billion.

Among the task force’s good recommendations:

■ Raise the cigarette tax to $1 a pack, up from 60 cents. Given the high public cost of smoking-related diseases in Kentucky, it should be even higher, such as the $1.60 that some task force members proposed. But at least Kentucky’s cigarette tax will no longer be the lowest in the region.

■ Amend the state constitution to allow local-option sales taxes. This is a big issue for Lexington, Louisville and other cities desperate for additional revenue to meet the needs of their urban populations and economies.

■ Make the state income tax more progressive, easing the burden on low-income wage-earners and putting more of it on high-income taxpayers. Much of that would be done by limiting deductions and exemptions.

The task force also recommended creating an earned-income tax credit to give relief to low-wage families. It would be modeled on the federal earned-income tax credit, a Republican idea that has been an effective, low-cost tool for reducing poverty among the working poor.

■ Eliminate two taxes that have always seemed like insults to two of Kentucky’s signature industries, horses and bourbon. The first is the sales tax on horse feed. Cattle feed is not taxed, but horse feed is, which has never seemed fair.

The other is the property tax on barrels of bourbon aging in warehouses. Bourbon has become a worldwide phenomenon, and Kentucky makes more than 90 percent of it. But this tax gives both established and new distillers a reason to look to elsewhere to build production facilities, which could risk Kentucky’s industry dominance.

■ Expand the 6 percent sales tax on goods to include some services. This could broaden Kentucky’s tax base as the economy continues to shift from goods to services. It is essential that Kentucky tax revenues grow with the economy, and this is one way to do it.

The task force also recommended cutting corporate taxes by abut $100 million. It is an article of faith among some business people that corporate taxes need to be as low as possible. But that seems unnecessary, because studies have shown that Kentucky’s corporate taxes already are competitive with peer states.

“What are we going to gain by making them lower?” asked Jason Bailey, a task force member and director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a Berea-based research group. “The corporate income tax is a very small part of doing business.”

Rather than cutting Kentucky’s already-low corporate taxes, Bailey thinks more jobs could be created by investing that money in education, health and infrastructure. Those are areas that companies look at when choosing a good place to do business, and they are areas where Kentucky is behind many other states.

Overall, though, the task force recommendations are the most positive talk in decades toward real, much-needed tax reform. Whether Kentucky’s political leaders will do anything about it remains to be seen.


Al Smith’s new memoir offers good stories, analysis of Kentucky

November 2, 2012

Al Smith’s autobiography, Wordsmith: My Life in Journalism, was the top seller at last year’s Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort. But, as always, Smith had a lot more to say.

So, two months shy of his 86th birthday, Smith will be back at this year’s book fair on Nov. 10 with another memoir, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism (History Press, 219 pp., $19.99.)

This book hits some highlights of the personal-transformation story Smith told in his autobiography — professional redemption after overcoming alcoholism and marrying the right woman — but it says a lot more about Kentucky than it does about Al Smith.

Kentucky Cured is a collection of new and updated essays, some of which first appeared in the Herald-Leader or The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Most are reflections on some of Kentucky’s most fascinating public figures of the second half of the 20th century.

Smith got to know them all, and many more, during his varied career. The Tennessee native published newspapers in Russellville, London and several smaller towns; was the founder and host for three decades of Kentucky Educational Television’s Comment on Kentucky show; ran the Appalachian Regional Commission under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; and, late in life, helped start the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Stories in this book involve many familiar names: Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, Bert Combs, Louie Nunn, Earl Clements, John Ed Pearce, Ed Prichard, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Robert Penn Warren, Lyman Johnson, Georgia Powers, Larry Forgy, Gatewood Galbraith, Lucille Little, Mike Mullins, Leonard and Lillian Press, and the crafty politician/educators who transformed Kentucky’s state “teacher colleges” into dynamic regional universities.

Smith is a gifted writer of tight prose, a storyteller with a good ear for a quote or a telling anecdote. But more than that, he is a keen observer and analyst who understands the historical and cultural forces that make Kentucky tick.

Smith has been a friend and mentor for 35 years, since his stepdaughter and I were college classmates. He always has been my model of an engaged community journalist — a reporter of facts, yes, but also someone who seeks to help citizens understand and improve the place where they live.

In this regard, Smith has reminds me of the late historian Thomas D. Clark, another man of letters who adopted Kentucky as his beloved home but was always frustrated because so many of his fellow citizens were willing to settle for mediocrity or worse.

Consider the final paragraph of Smith’s essay Why Clements and Prichard Still Matter. It asks a question as relevant now as when it appeared in the Herald-Leader’s Opinions and Ideas section three years ago:

“In a state like Kentucky, leadership often falls to political hacks or fresh faces with painless promises, which fail. Clements and Prichard mattered because they knew the game before they got on the field and played it courageously, with a vision that had lasting, positive consequences. Where is the courage, where is the vision for Kentucky today?”

Smith’s passion and hope for his adopted state shine through in Kentucky Cured. Perhaps that is why, two decades after many other men of accomplishment would have retired to a life of leisure, Al Smith is still producing journalism that is well worth reading.


Exhibit shows a century of Kentucky political memorabilia

October 30, 2012

The Georgetown & Scott County Museum has on display through Nov. 30 perhaps the largest collection ever assembled of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. Many items are one-of-a-kind. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

GEORGETOWN — Before there were TV attack ads, political campaigns were waged with posters, buttons and bumper stickers — and even thimbles, string ties and china water pitchers.

This election season, the Georgetown & Scott County Museum has assembled what organizers say is the largest-ever display of Kentucky campaign memorabilia. More than 1,200 items cover the century from 1883 to 1983.

The exhibit combines three large collections — assembled by Jerome Redfearn, Robert Westerman and Julius Rather — with artifacts held by the University of Kentucky, Western Kentucky University and several individuals.

“Many of these items, especially the early stuff, are one-of-a-kind, unless you get lucky and find the right attic,” said Redfearn, a Georgetown antiques dealer who has been collecting Kentucky campaign items for 35 years.

The museum also has published a full-color, $30 catalog of the exhibit.

The exhibit begins with a cigar box, postcard and button promoting the 1883 gubernatorial campaign of J. Proctor Knott, the namesake of Knott County. It concludes with material promoting the 1983 election of Kentucky’s first and only female governor, Martha Layne Collins.

In between, there is paraphernalia from just about every Kentuckian of that century who ran for governor, U.S. senator, vice president or president. Famous names include Alben Barkley, A.B. “Happy” Chandler, Louie Nunn, Bert Combs, Edward “Ned” Breathitt, Wendell Ford, John Sherman Cooper and three men named John Young Brown. Their names, images and slogans are reproduced on everything from buttons and hats to thimbles and “Kentucky colonel” string ties.

Among the many never-before- displayed items is a ribbon promoting the candidacy of Simon Boliver Buckner, the former Confederate general who was elected governor in 1887. His term coincided with the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the scandal over state treasurer James “Honest Dick” Tate, who disappeared with $250,000 of state money.

“That’s the only one known to exist,” Redfearn said of the Buckner ribbon. “It’s mine. Bob Westerman would love to have it, but he’s not going to get it.”

Campaign buttons and trinkets first became popular in the late 1800s, when machines enabled cheap mass production. Early buttons were covered with clear celluloid before lithography allowed color printing on tin in the 1920s. The popularity of automobiles led to campaign license plates and, later, bumper stickers.

This exhibit has many items from the notorious 1899 campaign for governor. That race pitted Republican William S. Taylor against Democrat William Goebel and the first John Young Brown, who ran on the “Honest Election Democrats” ticket in reaction to Goebel’s hardball tactics.

Taylor narrowly won, but opponents alleged vote fraud and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly gave the election to Goebel. Before he could take office, Goebel was shot in the back on the Capitol lawn, becoming the only American governor to be assassinated. Campaign items include a one-of-a-kind china water pitcher with Goebel’s portrait and a postcard bearing the slogan “Down with Goebelism!”

Lindsey Apple, a retired history professor at Georgetown College who helped organize the exhibit, said this collection also speaks to more positive aspects of Kentucky politics. Many of the names and faces displayed here became good leaders — or could have been.

“One of the things that emerges from this was how many men were well qualified to be public servants, but for whatever reason the timing just wasn’t right,” Apple said.

While the 1899 election set a standard for violence and bitterness, other races were waged by opponents who could remain friends despite their political differences.

State historian James Klotter recalled the 1915 race for governor between Democrat A.O. Stanley and Republican Edwin Morrow. They traveled the state, lambasting each other from the stump but often drinking together in the same hotel room at night.

At one joint appearance, Klotter said, the hot sun became too much for Stanley as Morrow spoke, perhaps because of their previous night’s revelry. He threw up in front of everyone.

“This goes to show you what I’ve been saying all over Kentucky,” Stanley said when it was his turn to speak. “Ed Morrow plain makes me sick to my stomach.”

Stanley won, but Morrow got his turn as governor four years later.

Click on each thumbnail to see larger photo and read caption:


I wish Kentucky governor had said more of this

January 8, 2012

Gatewood Galbraith, one of Kentucky’s most colorful politicians, died Wednesday, just hours before Gov. Steve Beshear delivered his fifth State of the Commonwealth Address.

Many people didn’t take Galbraith or his politics very seriously, but they liked him anyway. He was a genuinely nice guy who could poke fun at opponents without leaving scars. Most of all, Kentuckians admired his willingness to point out obvious truths despite the political cost.

As I watched Beshear speak, I could not imagine Galbraith standing there before the General Assembly. There were good reasons he lost five races for governor.

Beshear’s speech wasn’t bad. He brought up some tough issues, and he avoided the “get off our backs” nonsense from last year that made him look like a coal-industry puppet.

Having just won re-election, Beshear finally admitted the need for state tax reform. Not that he has proposed any real action before the end of the year, when most legislators stand for re-election. But it was a start. Maybe.

Still, with Galbraith on my mind that day, I longed to hear more honesty, more leadership and more political courage from a governor who will not have to face voters again — and who might want a political legacy beyond “caretaker.”

I longed to hear something more like this:

Ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly, I don’t need to tell you that Kentucky has big problems. That has long been obvious to you, me and every citizen of the commonwealth. The people sent us to Frankfort to solve these problems, not to keeping ignoring them while we take care of our friends and feather our own nests.

This is the time for bold action. We must be leaders, and leadership sometimes means taking people where they don’t want to go.

For more than a decade, state government has spent more than it takes in. We masked the problem for a while with economic growth and a lot of debt. More recently, we masked it with $3 billion in federal stimulus money.

Most of you claim not to like President Barack Obama. I’ve done my best to avoid him, too. But despite what his critics say, the president’s economic stimulus kept thousands of Kentuckians working and saved our state budget. Now that money is gone, and we must face up to our responsibilities.

We need significant long-term investments to make Kentucky’s citizens more healthy, educated and able to compete in a 21st century economy. That will take money.

Circumstances may force us to keep cutting the budget for a while, but no state or business ever cut its way to prosperity. We must spend the money we have more wisely. As political leaders, we must fight waste, fraud and abuse — and stop being some of the worst perpetrators of it.

Expanded gambling won’t solve Kentucky’s problems any more than the lottery did. We must increase state revenues in other ways. That’s right, folks, we must raise taxes.

Forget those fairy tales about how everything will be fine if we just let business do as it pleases and all but abolish government. I know, some voters love that rhetoric. But as important as the private sector is, it won’t solve all of our problems. That kind of thinking is a big reason why our nation is in this mess — the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class disappearing.

Folks, what Kentucky needs is real tax reform. We need a state tax system that is fair and produces revenue that grows with the economy and Kentucky’s needs. That means wealthier people should pay more. Powerful interests must lose many of their tax breaks.

Sure, our tax system must remain “competitive” where business is concerned. But that can’t mean giving business a free ride at the expense of working people. States that do that hide a lot of poverty and misery beneath their “pro-business” gloss.

You and I know this won’t be easy. It will mean facing up to powerful people and companies that have funded our campaigns. And it will mean angering voters who want something for nothing. But it’s the right thing to do.


Auditor Crit Luallen a tough act to follow

November 13, 2011

It is rare for voters to want a politician — especially a Kentucky politician — to stay in office beyond the term limit. But I have heard many people wish aloud that Crit Luallen could be state auditor for life.

The comments weren’t meant to be critical of Adam Edelen or John T. Kemper III, the Republican whom Edelen defeated in Tuesday’s election to succeed Luallen, a Democrat, who must leave after two four-year terms.

Those people were just acknowledging the outstanding job Luallen has done rooting out corruption and financial mismanagement in state and local government. She raised the bar high for future auditors.

“I believe this office has brought a new level of accountability to the oversight of public dollars,” Luallen said in an interview last week. “And I think that has extended beyond just the folks who have been the target of our audits.”

Luallen came to the auditor’s office with a strong background in the financial management of state government. Her jobs with five previous governors included Finance Cabinet secretary, state budget director and secretary of Gov. Paul Patton’s executive cabinet.

“I wanted to use this office in a way that went after some of Kentucky’s historic challenges,” she said. “I saw public corruption as one of those.”

By law, the auditor’s office conducts more than 600 regular financial audits each year of state and local government agencies. During Luallen’s eight years, about 200 of those audits were referred to law enforcement agencies because of suspected criminal activity. As a result, 33 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes.

But Luallen and her 135- member staff have attracted the most public attention for several special audits of quasi-government agencies, including Blue Grass Airport, the Kentucky League of Cities, the Kentucky Association of Counties and Passport Health Plan.

Three of those high-profile audits were done after Herald-Leader investigations raised questions about financial and other issues. Top officials resigned or were forced out after those audits, and the airport case resulted in criminal convictions.

Luallen’s audits highlighted the fact that many quasi-governmental organizations were loosely governed by board members who didn’t understand their responsibilities.

“In many cases there was a charismatic and polished staff leader who made the board feel very comfortable that things were going along just fine and they didn’t need to ask tough questions,” Luallen said.

The scandals prompted many of Kentucky’s private, non-profit organizations to look hard at their own governance. “They contacted us and said, ‘We want to be sure we understand what our responsibilities are and that we are doing the right thing,'” she said.

Luallen’s office developed good-governance guidelines, and she has traveled the state talking about them. “We advise board members to ask questions, get engaged, provide the kind of oversight and governance that the law expects,” she said.

Citizens should take a similar approach and demand that state and local government be more open and accountable. Luallen said it was no coincidence that the most historically corrupt parts of Kentucky are those with the least education, economic opportunity and civic engagement.

“The fundamental solution to more accountability is more education,” she said. “The better educated our population, the more they’re going to be involved in public process.”

Asked what advice she would give her successor, Luallen said Edelen should surround himself with an outstanding professional staff, as she has done. Also, she said, “Never let political considerations or personal relationships color your decisions in this job.”

Luallen thinks she accomplished that, despite the fact that many audits had political implications or involved people she had known for years, if not decades. “I can’t think of a single thing we did that was not carefully grounded in the facts,” she said.

As for her future, Luallen, 59, said she plans to seek elected office again but hasn’t decided which one. She has been mentioned as a challenger to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014 or a future candidate for governor. “I’ll be looking at all of my options,” she said.

After leaving the auditor’s office next month, Luallen said she plans to take a break to travel and spend time with her husband, Lynn, and their large extended family.

“My husband is a big advocate for me taking a break,” she said. “We’re negotiating on how long the break is. He’s thinking maybe a year. I’m thinking maybe 15 minutes.”


Chamber can have big influence on improving Kentucky

July 18, 2011

I am increasingly impressed with the leadership of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Rather than just taking care of business, it seems to realize that improving life in Kentucky will help create economic prosperity.

That was apparent at last week’s annual meeting in Louisville. The agenda focused on substantive discussions of two of Kentucky’s biggest issues, coal and education.

For example, the keynote speaker on coal was journalist James Fallows, whose Atlantic magazine cover story last December was one of the best things I have read on the subject. “Coal is inevitably going to be a major part of the world’s energy solution for the foreseeable future,” he said. “But that role will be and has to be different.”

While Fallows characterized his remarks as a “good news speech,” it was nothing like the hot air we usually hear from the coal industry and its cheerleaders.

No matter how successful the world is at developing alternative energy, coal will remain a vital fuel for decades, Fallows said. But he stressed that global economic, scientific and political trends will require that coal be mined and burned in more environmentally friendly ways. It is smarter to lead change than be trampled by it.

Solutions built around market incentives — such as the ill-fated “cap and trade” proposal — would be better than regulation because they would encourage business creativity and flexibility, Fallows said. But if business wants market-driven change rather than regulatory change, he said, “high-level industrial leadership is important.”

Fallows was followed by Michael G. Morris, chairman of American Electric Power, whose remarks were titled “Coal Under Attack.” While saying that coal must get “cleaner,” his rambling presentation was filled with the usual clichés about new environmental rules being unfair and unreasonable.

Morris bragged about how much less pollution coal-fired power plants emit now than they used to — as if that were the result of industry leadership rather than government regulations that most utilities fought every step of the way.

Morris repeated an earlier claim that new regulations will have a “devastating effect” on AEP, shutting down 6,000 megawatts of generating capacity. But as another speaker pointed out later, two-thirds of that capacity was going to be retired anyway because of a 2007 pollution settlement with the Bush administration.

I was impressed that so many chamber members seemed wise to Morris, even ignoring most of his attempts at applause and laugh lines.

Morris was followed by Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research. He gave an excellent but rushed presentation that echoed many of Fallows’ points and made a persuasive economic and environmental argument for making coal-fired power plants more efficient. I would like to have heard more from him.

The chamber announced some initiatives that could have a big impact. The New Agenda for Kentucky Campaign focuses on action plans in five areas: improving schools, modernizing government, remaining competitive in energy resources, doubling international exports within five years and improving Kentuckians’ health and wellness.

Perhaps the most impressive effort is the Kentucky Leadership Institute for School Principals. AT&T and other companies are giving money to send many Kentucky school principals to the respected (and expensive) Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina to get the kind of high-level leadership training that business executives receive.

The chamber also unveiled a follow-up to its 2009 “Leaky Bucket” study, which underscored how huge increases in state spending for public employee health care, Medicaid and prisons were contributing to a short-change of education.

That report provided encouragement — and political cover — for landmark legislation earlier this year to rewrite Kentucky’s criminal code. It will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in jails and prisons, send more drug offenders to treatment and save a lot of taxpayer money in the process.

The chamber’s new report, called “Building a Stronger Bucket,” offers more suggested policy changes, including moving new state employees to a 401(k)-style pension plan.

Too often in the past, Kentucky has fallen behind the rest of the nation when narrow economic or political interests wielded too much power. Building a better future will require that many perspectives be considered and many voices be heard.

Still, no single group can do more to make this state a better place to live than a progressive organization that represents a broad spectrum of the business community. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce seems to be stepping up to the challenge.


‘War on coal’ avoids the real challenge, responsibility

June 12, 2011

Did you hear we are at war? I don’t mean the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the covert wars in Libya and Yemen or even the nebulous wars against terrorism and drugs.

I mean the “War on Coal.” All of Kentucky’s politicians are talking about it — at least all of those who want campaign contributions and support from the coal industry.

“They have declared war, war on Kentucky’s coal industry,” U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a speech to the Kentucky Coal Association earlier this month. The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader claimed the EPA wants to see the “coal industry driven out of business altogether.”

The next day, state Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat who heads the state House Natural Resources Committee, went even further as he complained about the EPA’s efforts to make coal-fired power plants reduce their air and water pollution.

“This is a war on Kentucky,” Gooch exclaimed during a hearing, “because what we’re talking about is totally destroying our economy.”

And don’t forget Gov. Steve Beshear’s tantrum against the EPA during his State of the Commonwealth address in February. “Get off our backs!” Beshear bellowed. “Get off our backs!”

So what is this War on Coal? A lot of baloney, that’s what. It is a public relations campaign by an industry with a long history of maximizing profits by disregarding environmental stewardship and mine safety.

The coal industry is apoplectic because federal regulators are doing their jobs more aggressively now than they did during the Bush administration. The EPA is enforcing the Clean Air Act by requiring industries to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions that cause climate change. The agency also is trying to curb destructive surface-mining practices and reduce water pollution.

Some politicians and business executives have responded by claiming that climate change is a myth, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Others just fear costs. But the costs of pollution have always existed; we just haven’t paid enough of them with our power bills and corporate bottom lines. We pay for them with sickness, premature death and degradation of our fragile planet.

I was encouraged to see that the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has invited journalist James Fallows to be a keynote speaker at its annual meeting July 12 in Louisville. He will talk about his December cover story in The Atlantic magazine, Why the Future of Clean Energy is Dirty Coal.

Fallows’ article — click here to read it online at TheAtlantic.com — is excellent. For one thing, it punctures illusions on both the political right and left. Yes, climate change is real and carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced to avert disaster. No, renewable energy cannot replace coal — at least not in our lifetimes.

Because coal will be essential to civilization for generations, the sensible thing is to figure out how to mine and burn it more cleanly, Fallows wrote. Most of that responsibility must fall to the United States and China, which together produce more than 40 percent of man-made greenhouse gasses and bring different strengths to the fight to reduce them.

Fallows profiled U.S. and Chinese scientists who are working on innovative solutions. The most intriguing experiment may be “underground coal gasification.” Jets of oxygen, mixed with steam or chemicals, are blasted into coal seams deep underground. That creates a chemical reaction, producing a gas that can be piped out and burned to create electricity. The process avoids the need for traditional mining and leaves most of coal’s nasty by-products underground.

Kentucky politicians and business leaders could learn a lot from Fallows’ thinking, which transcends ideology to see the coal issue for what it really is — a technology problem to be solved.

Rather than fighting a “war” to protect pollution, Kentucky’s leaders should look past political clichés and entrenched economic interests.

They should position Kentucky to be a leader in meeting the technical and economic challenge of making “clean coal” a reality instead of an oxymoron. It won’t be cheap, easy or painless for anyone, but it is the smart thing to do.


Chamber knows Kentucky art is good for business

February 27, 2011

FRANKFORT — When the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce decided to renovate and enlarge its headquarters to create more public space, chamber president David Adkisson said, “I kept saying I wanted something really Kentucky.”

He considered asking architects to design the 7,000-square-foot addition to look like a fancy Bluegrass horse barn, or even a bourbon distillery warehouse.

“They convinced me that wasn’t the way to go,” Adkisson said, as he gave me a tour of the beautiful, but conventional, new space.

What is happening instead is a better reflection of Kentucky’s uniqueness: the Chamber is filling its new building with a diverse collection of original art and furniture by the state’s contemporary artists and craftsmen.

Since the new space opened in April, it has been a big hit, with members of the business advocacy group and with other Kentucky organizations that have used the new meeting rooms, Adkisson said.

He said the project has more than achieved his goal of making the Chamber’s headquarters, near the intersection of Interstate 64 and U.S. 60, a prominent “front door” to Frankfort.

“We’re in the business of showing off the best of Kentucky, so this was a natural,” Adkisson said. “We made a conscious effort to create a gallery-like atmosphere that would showcase the artwork. Now, when groups come here, the art immediately becomes the focus of attention.”

The project also has been a significant boost for Kentucky artists — and not just because the Chamber has so far spent about $50,000 buying and commissioning pieces. Louisville distiller Brown Foreman gave $40,000 toward the art project, and most of the rest so far has come from building-project money, Adkisson said.

Lori Meadows, executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council, worked closely with the Chamber to identify artists and pieces for the building.

“It’s incredibly important for the Chamber to recognize that to complete a building, you need art,” Meadows said. “A lot of time went into the selection of pieces to make sure they were appropriate for each spot.”

The additional space was built onto the front of the Chamber’s existing 10,000-square-foot building. The two sections are connected by a new, light-filled lobby. The upper parts of the tall lobby walls are covered with panoramic Kentucky scenes by Jeff Rogers, a Lexington photographer best known for his two Kentucky Wide books.

The Chamber’s new board room is dominated by a round conference table designed by Brooks Meador of Interspace Limited in Lexington and produced by furniture maker Shawn Strevels of Faulkner Fain in Nicholasville.

The board room’s largest wall displays four large seasonal landscape paintings of Kentucky wilderness by John Lackey of Lexington. Light from a corner window illuminates a leaded-glass sculpture by Dan Neil Barnes of Lexington.

The building’s largest meeting space — the AT&T Teleconference Room — has a 10-painting suite by Lexington artist Dan McGrath, depicting scenes of commerce across the state.

The new addition also features paintings by Chris Segre-Lewis of Wilmore and Darrell Ishmael of Lexington, and mixed-media pieces by Kathleen O’Brien of Harrodsburg. There are decorative platters made by porcelain artist Wayne Bates of Murray, and a coffee table in the reception area made by Mark Whitley of Smith’s Grove.

“Our goal is to buy one new piece each year,” Adkisson said. After a few more pieces are purchased, he said, the Chamber plans to publish a brochure for visitors, telling about each artwork and the artist who created it.

“I think it’s exciting that they are realizing the value of art and supporting it,” said Ishmael, who in addition to being a successful artist is an executive with East Kentucky Power Cooperative in Winchester. “I think it’s really refreshing, and I wish other businesses would do it.”

Meadows said the Chamber’s collection has inspired several executives to contact her for help in acquiring original Kentucky art for their companies’ buildings. “That’s exactly what we want to see happen,” she said.

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Farmer’s tax plan changes: sales tax up, not down

January 10, 2011

When researching my column today, I missed an important change in the state tax reform proposal that  Rep. Bill Farmer, a Lexington Republican, has made for each of the past several years.

Previously, Farmer said that by eliminating the state’s personal and corporate income taxes and extending the sales tax to most services, enough revenue could be generated to lower Kentucky’s 6 percent sales tax rate, perhaps to 5 percent or 5.5 percent.

Rep. Bill Farmer

But the version of the bill Farmer filed for this legislative session calls instead for raising the sales tax rate to 7 percent. Why the change?

“The economists missed badly last year” when estimating the tax revenues that would be produced by the changes he was proposing, Farmer said. How badly? About $1 billion.

Farmer said he still isn’t sure the changes would require an increase in the overall sales tax rate at a time when lawmakers would be taxing more services and removing exemptions in order to eliminate income taxes, but he is trying to be conservative. “It’s easier to start a little high and go low than to start low and have to raise it at some point,” he said.

Not that it is likely to matter. Farmer said he has little hope that any meaningful tax reform will happen this year — his plan or anyone else’s. And he is skeptical that Kentucky politicians will ever be willing to eliminate income taxes.

As I wrote in my column today, many business leaders and politicians like Tennessee’s tax system because they say that taxing consumption rather than income is more attractive to businesses and high-income workers.

But the tradeoff for Tennessee has been some of the nation’s highest sales taxes. That leaves poor and middle-class people paying a bigger share of their income in taxes than higher-income folks. The last commission Tennessee lawmakers appointed in 2002 to study that state’s tax system proposed fixing that problem by — you guessed it — creating a state income tax.


Sylvia Lovely tries for a comeback after KLC scandal

December 11, 2010

After taking some hard falls — both professionally and physically — Sylvia Lovely is trying for a comeback.

Lovely retired a year ago as director of the Kentucky League of Cities following a scathing state auditor’s report about spending practices, alleged conflicts of interest and board oversight of the organization. The auditor’s review was prompted by a Herald-Leader investigation.

Then, last summer, Lovely suffered a series of medical problems, including a broken hip. She now walks with a cane, but is as feisty as ever.

Lovely, 60, is speaking to groups and consulting on community issues around the country. She serves on Morehead State University’s Board of Regents and is raising money for research into ovarian cancer, which killed her mother.

She also has formed a consulting firm, Sylvia Lovely & Associates, and is trying to market her services to help executives and organizations manage “reputational risk.” Basically, she wants to advise them on how to avoid what happened to her.

Second acts have become common — even celebrated — in American culture. Celebrities, politicians and public figures fall hard amid scandal, only to rise again and reinvent themselves after some degree of repentance.

After looking at the Web site of Lovely’s new firm — SylviaLovely.com — I was curious to know more about what lessons she learned from her experience, because she has said little about it until recently.

“Was I perfect? Did I run a perfect organization? No,” she said in an interview, adding that neither the newspaper articles nor the auditor’s report told the full story. “I should have spoken out sooner.”

Lovely remains proud of her work at KLC. During her 20 years as executive director, the organization grew from a small association of Kentucky cities into a politically powerful force with a profitable municipal insurance unit.

State Auditor Crit Luallen didn’t question KLC’s performance, but she criticized its high executive salaries and perks, its spending and executives’ conflicts of interest. Those included $1.4 million in legal fees paid to a law firm whose partners include Lovely’s husband, Bernard, and $28,600 in business with a restaurant that he partly owns. The auditor also criticized KLC’s board, made up mostly of mayors, for poor oversight.

Lovely said she will advise clients to have written governance policies, review them annually and consider how things that make sense to them might look to outsiders. That wasn’t done nearly as well as it should have been at KLC, and Lovely said she accepts much of the blame for that.

But Lovely, whose salary was $330,000 last year, defended KLC’s executive pay as being in line with private insurance competitors. She said KLC board members were aware of the alleged conflicts of interest the auditor noted and didn’t object.

Lovely’s biggest disagreement with her critics is about what standards KLC should have been held to — as a government organization or as a private trade association — and whether those standards and expectations were clear and well-defined.

“Maybe we were too complex, but I did not operate it as a government,” she said. “I ran it like a business, and we were successful. I performed under the rules I was given.”

The auditor said KLC should be viewed as a part of government because, among other things, its insurance products are bought by cities with public money and its employees are part of the state retirement system.

The auditor’s report noted that Lovely is eligible for an annual state pension of more than $165,000, based on 22 years of service and an extra five years’ worth of benefits she purchased with a perk from KLC — a $125,000 forgivable loan.

The governmental status of KLC and the Kentucky Association of Counties, whose spending and salaries also were criticized by the auditor following another Herald-Leader investigation, were later confirmed by the General Assembly. Legislation approved overwhelmingly last year made that clear.

But Lovely thinks it should still be up for discussion. “We never really had that debate,” she said.

As she seeks a new career helping others avoid risk to their reputations, Lovely said she isn’t worried about restoring her own. “I think people are smart enough to see shades of gray,” she said. “And I think there were a lot of shades of gray with this stuff.”

I suspect Lovely will find an audience of executives who fear that what happened to her could also happen to them. With the economy weak, unemployment high and average people feeling the pinch, there is little public tolerance for free-spending, highly paid executives in either public or private organizations.

“The rules are changing,” Lovely noted. And many people think it is long overdue.

I wish Lovely well in her comeback. But it may be hard for her to succeed in this second act until she fully appreciates why the first one ended as it did.


KY Capitol celebrates centennial with new murals

June 2, 2010

We might not like a lot of what goes on inside the Kentucky Capitol, but the building itself is pretty special.

And it just got a lot more special.

Beautiful new murals were installed two weeks ago in the four pendentive corners between the Capitol’s rotunda and the dome.

The murals will be dedicated this weekend during a two-day celebration of the Capitol’s centennial. There is a gala Friday night and free family activities all day Saturday, with tours of the Capitol and the executive mansion, food, balloon rides and entertainment.

“This is a unique opportunity to celebrate the Capitol,” said first lady Jane Beshear, who helped to organize the celebration.

The Capitol was dedicated June 2, 1910, nearly six years after construction began on what was then farmland across the Kentucky River from downtown Frankfort. Murals had always been planned for those spaces above the rotunda. But you know how Kentuckians are — always short of money. We just never got around to it.

Jeffrey Greene noticed the blank corners in 1992, when his New York-based company was doing restoration work in the Capitol’s elegant State Reception Room. The Cincinnati native is perhaps the closest thing this country has to a capitol handyman. Since he started Evergreene Architectural Arts in 1978, it has created murals for the U.S. Capitol and has done restoration work in 31 of 50 state capitols.

Greene left some sketches of what murals in those corners might look like, but nothing came of it until 2005, after David Buchta became curator and director of the Kentucky Division of Historic Properties.

“He found the sketches, called me and said, ‘What is this?'” Greene said last month as he supervised installation and finishing touches on the murals.

Still, the murals wouldn’t have been done without Marion Forcht of Corbin, a member of the Historic Properties Advisory Commission, which looks after Kentucky’s old and new capitols and governors’ mansions. She and her husband, banker Terry Forcht, decided that such a unique piece of public art would be a great legacy to leave their state. They donated nearly $300,000 to create and install the murals.

“I’m extremely pleased with them,” Marion Forcht said as she sat on marble steps leading to the Capitol’s Senate Chamber and watched artists on tall scaffolding install the murals. “They certainly fulfilled our expectations. The skill of the people who do that work is amazing.”

Greene said the murals were designed and painted in the relatively short span of six months by a group of 10 artists and craftsmen.

“It was a fun project,” he said. “With restoration, you’re just putting back what was once there. This is more of a challenge, because you’re creating new murals, but in a historical style so that they look as if they have always been there.”

Evergreene created murals that celebrate Kentucky’s history and culture using allegorical figures and images of places and things for which the state is famous.

For example, one mural, called Nature: The Bounty of the Land, shows the mythical figure Ceres, symbol of agriculture and bounty. The figure is flanked by a jockey and farmer and symbols of Kentucky’s agrarian heritage, from cattle, tobacco and horses to the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.

The other three murals are similarly designed. They are called: Industry: The Strength of Commerce; Culture: The Fruits of Knowledge; and Civitas: The Light of Progress. At the base of each mural is a faux-bas relief depicting Kentucky’s Native American heritage.

Each mural — which is about 30 feet at its widest point and 25 feet tall — is crammed with Kentucky symbolism.

“As one looks at it, you can find more and more going on,” said Greene, a trained portrait painter who oversaw the painting of each human figure’s face. “We tried to have these richly layered so people can enjoy them on a number of levels.”

If you go

What: Gala Event in the Capitol rotunda, with unveiling of murals, music, hors d’oeuvres and Kentucky wine and bourbon bar.

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Cost: $75 a person. Call (502) 564-5500 for tickets

What: Family activities on Capitol grounds, tours of the Capitol and executive mansion. Activities include balloon and carriage rides, music, crafts and an antique car show.

When: Beginning at 7:30 a.m. Saturday

Cost: Free

For more information: www.capitol.ky.gov

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Amid irresponsibility, plenty of anger to go around

May 23, 2010

I understand why so many Americans are angry. I am angry, too.

The nation is mired in two costly wars. The economy tanked because of greedy bankers, investors, lenders and borrowers. Schools and other vital institutions are in crisis. Things our society used to take for granted — from affordable health care to jobs that can fund a middle-class lifestyle — are hard for many people to find.

The angry people getting most of the attention lately are the Tea Party screamers — mostly older, white, more affluent folks who preach a gospel of selfishness. They see the problem as “big government.”

But I encounter a larger, quieter, though still angry group of people every day. They don’t wave flags, wax nonsensically about the Constitution or seek to live in some idealized past.

These people, both Democrats and Republicans, think the Tea Partiers’ diagnosis of what is wrong with America is missing a couple of words and most of the point. They see the problem as “big business” and “irresponsible government”.

Free enterprise is what makes America great — the ability of individuals to work hard and succeed, to be both “free” and responsible members of society. But for that to work, it takes responsible government to provide infrastructure, keep the system honest and protect the vulnerable. Government is not “them,” it is “us”.

Responsible government has been hard to find lately. One reason is both Democrats and Republicans have been lavishly funded by big business, and the Supreme Court’s conservative majority recently opened the floodgates for even more corporate influence.

Another problem is both Republicans and Democrats want to spend too much and tax too little. The nation’s social safety net and economic security are threatened by rising debt, but money keeps flowing to corporate giveaways, pork-barrel projects and unrealistic entitlement programs. Not to mention ill-conceived wars.

At the same time, irresponsible politicians have repeatedly cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. What the “taxed enough already” crowd will not acknowledge is federal taxes for almost everyone are their lowest in decades.

Republicans like to complain about health care reform being a “government takeover.” In reality, it is nothing like the government-run health care that works pretty well in most other western democracies. This reform was basically a sop to the health care industrial complex. While it expands coverage to more people, it does little to control costs and lacks a public option to private insurance.

“Socialist” President Barack Obama is the focus of much right-wing anger. But liberals — not to mention the nation’s few actual socialists — note that most of his policies would have made him a solid Republican only a few decades ago.

Tea Partiers love to rant against government regulation, as if markets were the product of magic rather than human nature. Anyone can find examples here and there of regulation that overreaches or is silly. But many of today’s biggest problems were caused by too little regulation, not too much.

The economic crisis was largely the result of deregulation and a lack of oversight of the financial industry under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The biggest problem with federal environmental laws has been that, until recently, they were barely enforced, despite what the “drill baby, drill” and “dig baby, dig” crowds like to claim.

As BP’s broken well gushes crude oil, destroying the environment and the livelihoods of thousands of people along the Gulf Coast, some Tea Party candidates want to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Excuse me?

One of the most absurd examples of political theory trumping common sense occurred last week. In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Rand Paul, fresh from winning Kentucky’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, indicated he thought the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an example of government over-reaching.

Echoing comments he made last month to the Courier-Journal editorial board, Paul suggested restaurants, for example, shouldn’t be required by law to serve black or gay people if they didn’t want to. Only later, amid outrage even from within his own party, did Paul finally take a stand in favor of a half-century of settled civil rights law.

“I hope he can separate the theoretical and the interesting and the hypothetical questions that college students debate until 2 a.m. from the actual votes we have to cast based on real legislation here,” Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, told The New York Times.

Something tells me it is going to be a long six months until November.


Capitol centennial June 4-5 shows off new murals

May 20, 2010

New murals are being installed this week in the state Capitol in Frankfort in preparation for the building’s centennial celebration June 4-5.

I took this photo of the installation Wednesday from the balcony around the base of the dome, high above the rotunda. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)

Evergreene Architectural Arts in New York created the murals for the four pendentive corners between the rotunda and dome.  Murals were always intended for those corners, which have been blank since the Capitol opened in 1910. People just never got around to it — until now.

The murals were created and installed thanks to a gift of nearly $300,000 from Marion Forcht, an active member of the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission, and her husband, Corbin banker Terry Forcht.

The centennial celebration June 4-5 will include a Gala ball ($75 per person) on Friday night and family activities on the capitol grounds Saturday. For more information, go to: www.capitol.ky.gov. For Gala tickets, call (502) 564-5500.

I’ll be writing more about the Capitol’s centennial and murals in Communities section of the June 2 Herald-Leader. You can read it here, too. Click here to read a piece I wrote about the project in January.