Want to improve the economy? Narrow the growing wealth gap

December 21, 2014

Many politicians and business executives like to complain about the slowness and fragility of the economic recovery. Then they push policies to keep it that way — or make it worse.

What they don’t seem to understand is that the best way to improve the economy is to put more money in the pockets of average people who will spend it.

Instead, these politicians and executives oppose raising the minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009 and losing ground to inflation for decades. A low minimum wage keeps wages just above it depressed, too.

Then there are the perversely misnamed “right to work” laws. Their real purpose is to weaken what is left of labor unions so that big business, which already seems to have bought control of government with campaign contributions, has nobody to challenge its power.

Add to that efforts to repeal Kentucky’s “prevailing wage” law, which would cut the pay of working men and women who build public construction projects.

The biggest drag on the economy — and perhaps the biggest threat to America’s long-term prosperity — is the widening wealth gap between the haves and have-nots. Narrowing the gap is in everyone’s best interest, whether they realize it or not.

The prevailing-wage law became a flashpoint last week at a state legislative meeting. The law is designed so that public construction projects pay wages that reflect those in the local community. But as so much of the construction industry has become non-union, critics argue that the law puts too much emphasis on higher union wages.

The Legislative Research Commission compiled a report showing that construction workers on state projects earned $8 an hour more than those on private projects. Workers on 12 school district projects earned $11.37 an hour more.

But critics objected to the analysis, saying it looked only at labor costs, not total project costs. Might more skilled, better-paid workers complete projects faster and better? Besides, higher wages help strengthen local communities.

The irony is that most of the legislators who think construction workers are overpaid have little to say about the sometimes obscene compensation policies at state government’s highest levels.

Kentucky’s public pension systems are among the most under-funded and least transparent in the nation, yet they provide rich benefits for part-time legislators and other high-ranking officials smart enough to game the system.

And then there is the case of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System president, long the nation’s highest-paid community college leader. He recently retired with a $300,000 handshake.

Warren County’s Fiscal Court last week approved Kentucky’s first county “right to work” ordinance, although it is unclear if it is legal under state law.

Republican legislators and chambers of commerce would like to make Kentucky a “right to work” state. That would make Kentucky more “friendly” to companies that want to come here and pay low wages. Studies show right-to-work states often do have faster job growth — as well as lower overall wages and higher poverty rates.

Since Congressional Democrats failed to overcome Republican opposition to raising the federal minimum wage, a statewide minimum-wage increase has been proposed by Democrats in the Kentucky General Assembly. Last Thursday, Louisville’s City Council raised the local minimum wage to $9 by 2017 on a 16-9 party-line vote.

Predictably, business groups and right-wing activists argue that would cause huge job losses — even though it has never happened with previous minimum-wage increases.

Since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, economic policies and trends have largely been based on “trickle-down” economic theory — the notion that if the rich get richer, everyone else will prosper, too. Trouble is, it hasn’t worked that way.

Wealth inequality in the United States is now higher than at any point since the 1920s. The vast majority of all income growth is going to the rich. Corporate profits and the stock market are at record highs. But average workers are losing ground, and the overall economy remains sluggish.

This is a global problem, too, prompting Pope Francis to take up the issue last year in a papal statement worthy of a few amens.

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” the Roman Catholic Church’s leader wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”


Election showed Lexington voters the best and worst of politics

November 8, 2014

grayMayor Jim Gray gave his acceptance speech on election night Tuesday. Gray and his opponent, Anthany Beatty, ran gentlemanly races and campaigned on real issues. Photo by Pablo Alcala

 

Voters in Lexington have seen the best and worst of American politics over the past few months.

The worst was the U.S. Senate race between 30-year incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Their campaign was one TV attack ad after another, funded by huge sums of special-interest money. McConnell and Grimes were both zinged by fact-checkers for lies and half-truths.

The main narrative of this campaign was the phony “war on coal” — the myth that Eastern Kentucky coal-mining jobs, which have been disappearing for three decades because of mechanization and market forces, will be saved if only the industry is allowed to inflict more pollution and environmental damage on this state.

The candidates agreed to only one debate, and even then rarely strayed from their talking points. Grimes wouldn’t admit she voted for President Barack Obama, her party’s nominee, and McConnell wouldn’t acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change. It was an absurd spectacle.

The race for Lexington mayor was a much different story. Mayor Jim Gray and his challenger, former Police Chief Anthany Beatty, behaved like gentlemen and, more importantly, campaigned on real issues grounded in fact.

They also appeared together in so many debates and public forums that voters had plenty of opportunities to assess them and their positions.

For the most part, Urban County Council candidates also ran issues-oriented campaigns and behaved responsibly.

Why the contrast between local and national politics? The biggest factor, I think, is that races in Lexington’s merged city-council government are non-partisan. That prevents every person and idea from having to be labeled and put at odds.

Since the 1980s, America’s two-party system has become increasingly nasty and counterproductive. We have devolved into a culture of winner-take-all politics where big money, ideology and partisan gamesmanship often trump common sense and the common good.

Of course, Lexington government isn’t completely free of those influences. But the more voters and elected leaders can keep them at bay, the more progress this city will continue to make.

I think Gray was re-elected by a wide margin because most voters could not fault his performance. His administration has combined progressive leadership with good management and fiscal responsibility. And the mayor is the first one to admit that having a good re-election challenger kept him on his toes.

But the race also showed that Beatty is someone who would bring a lot of skill, experience and wisdom to public service should he seek elected office again.

Lexington lost a lot with the retirement of Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, a talented legislator who has a gift for bringing people to consensus. Fortunately, Gorton will be succeeded by someone with similar skills. Steve Kay, the new vice mayor and only returning at-large council member, is a professional facilitator with a reputation for integrity and fairness. Like Gray, he also is not afraid to tackle tough issues others have avoided.

As for the other council members who won races Tuesday, there are no obvious weak links. Kevin Stinnett moved up from a district to an at-large post, while Richard Moloney and Fred Brown returned to council after previous service.

Jake Gibbs is new to public office, but his background and demeanor could make him a model for a constituent-focused district council member. Another newcomer, Susan Lamb, was formerly the council’s clerk. She brings to her new job valuable knowledge of how city government really works.

I hated to see Harry Clarke lose re-election, because the retired University of Kentucky music professor did a great job in his one term. But Amanda Mays Bledsoe has a background in government policy that could make her an able successor.

The same is true for state lawyer Angela Evans, who was elected to the district seat Stinnett left. Jennifer Mossotti, Shevawn Akers and Jennifer Scutchfield are good district council members who deserved re-election.

Urban County Council members come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, party affiliations and political beliefs. But because Lexington’s government is non-partisan, citizens hold them to a higher standard. People expect them to work together, reach consensus and move the city forward.

As in the past, Lexington’s mayor and council members have the opportunity to show politicians in Frankfort and Washington how to rise above petty politics and get things done for the greater good.


Uniquely Kentucky: Closing essay from Friday’s special section

September 30, 2014

abeEduardo Kobra’s mural of Abraham Lincoln in downtown Lexington, with the moon over his shoulder. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has always been at a crossroads. Buffalo came looking for food and water. Native Americans came looking for buffalo. Pioneers and settlers came looking for land and opportunity.

Originally the Western frontier, Kentucky has been more or less at the center of the country geographically since the 1830s. Culturally, though, it remains a place unto itself. Many places, actually.

Early settlers came to the Bluegrass for fertile land and pure water to produce hemp, tobacco, strong-boned horses and good whiskey. Eastern Kentucky developed a rich, complex Appalachian culture as newer immigrants joined Anglo-Saxon settlers when railroads opened the mountains for timber and coal harvesting.

Communities along the Ohio River, long nourished by commerce, have created personalities all their own, as have those amid the farms of Southern Kentucky. Western Kentucky rolls out like a rumpled green carpet to the Jackson Purchase, encompassing many unique local cultures.

Ask someone in China what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” I went to church once with friends in a small Australian town and was introduced to the minister afterward. He immediately said, “Ah, the Kentucky Derby!”

The recent popularity of bourbon has given Kentucky another international claim to fame. Jimmy Russell, the master distiller at Wild Turkey, told me that when he travels to Asia, Europe and Australia he is treated like a rock star. As he should be.

Kentuckians know how to eat well. Nothing is better than Western Kentucky barbecue in the summer or spicy burgoo in the winter. Any morning that begins with country ham and biscuits is a good morning.

Louisville has the calorie-packed Hot Brown sandwich, otherwise known as “heart attack on a plate.” Want something lighter? Try benedictine, a cucumber spread long popular with Louisville ladies who lunch.

Immigration continues to enrich Kentucky’s culture and palate: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and African. The newest menu item at the 134-year-old Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County is barbecue nachos.

Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, as was his Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis. America’s greatest sports car, the Corvette, is made in Bowling Green. The stoplight was invented Garrett Morris, a black man from Paris.

Country music owes much of its sound to old-time Kentucky fiddlers and the hard-charging mandolin of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. And don’t forget Loretta Lynn, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush.

Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has started calling Kentucky the “literary capital of mid-America.”  Sure, it’s a big boast. But consider the evidence: Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Wendell Berry, Harriette Arnow, Bobbie Ann Mason, Barbara Kingsolver, Sue Grafton, Jesse Stuart, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Hunter S. Thompson, C.E. Morgan and too many more to mention. Outsiders may still joke that Kentuckians don’t wear shoes, but we sure can write.

That’s the good news. Now for some bad news: Kentucky lags most other states in many measures of health, education, social welfare and economic innovation.

Kentuckians tend to cling to what worked in the past rather than leveraging their unique assets, heritage, culture, location and know-how for a brighter future. We carelessly spoil beautiful landscape with strip mines and strip malls. We focus on fears instead of possibilities.

Remember what I said about Kentucky being at a crossroads?  It has never been more true than today.


Lessons for Appalachia in Wales’ recovery from coal’s collapse

September 29, 2014

SouthWalesThe Tower Colliery near the village of Hirwaun, in Glamorgan, South Wales, in 2009. Tower Colliery was the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press. 

 

People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.

But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.

This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.

These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.

Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.

Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.

“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”

Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.

South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.

Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.

As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.

Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.

Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.

A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.

While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.

Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.

But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.

“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.

Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.

Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.

“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”


Concerns about militarized police ignore bigger, underlying issues

September 27, 2014

Should Andy Taylor and Barney Fife be equipped like Rambo?

That has been a much-debated topic since police in Ferguson, Mo., responded with paramilitary aggressiveness to protesters after one of their white officers shot and killed a black teenager.

The situation focused public attention on the U.S. Defense Department’s 1033 program, which has given away hundreds of millions of dollars worth of “surplus” military equipment to state and local police forces, whether they need it or not.

Kentucky’s House Local Government Committee held a hearing last week on this issue. The 1033 program has furnished 33,000 military weapons and supplies, valued at more than $44 million, to Kentucky police agencies over the past decade.

That includes the Lexington Police Department’s two helicopters, hundreds of automatic rifles for the Kentucky State Police and a $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle for the Owensboro Police Department. And you know who is paying to buy, operate and take care of all these goodies. You are.

This trend raises many issues, but I haven’t seen some of the biggest ones discussed.

Access to this kind of firepower only increases the chances for abuse of power and tragedy among badly managed police forces. But problems such as those in Ferguson have more to do with what is in officers’ hearts than what is in their hands. Bull Connor’s Birmingham cops needed only fire hoses to show their moral bankruptcy in the 1960s.

Besides, I understand why police officers want and sometimes need military-style weapons. Thanks to the NRA and other gun-rights radicals, any Tom, Dick or lunatic now has easy access to military-style weapons, and many think they have a constitutional right to flaunt them in public.

It is no wonder the FBI reported last week that the number of mass shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. Authorities studied 160 shootings that killed or wounded 1,000 people, many of which occurred in schools or businesses. In one-fourth of those cases, the shooter committed suicide before police arrived.

Do we really have more crazy people than in the past? Or is it simply that society’s gun lust has made it easier for them to inflict maximum carnage? Until the United States is mature enough to enact common-sense gun control measures, police will sometimes need serious firepower to keep themselves and the public safe.

But the issues go much deeper. When I read about the Defense Department doling out all of this “surplus” equipment, I wonder why they have it all to give away.

As Dwight Eisenhower was leaving the presidency in 1961, he gave a famous farewell speech that warned about the corrupting influence he saw in the rise of America’s “military industrial complex.”

Eisenhower, a Republican and the greatest general of World War II, was no wild-eyed pacifist. But he clearly saw what was happening.

“The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist,” Eisenhower warned. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Eisenhower’s fears have been realized, and the 1033 program is just a small example.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2012 estimated U.S. military spending at $645 billion, more than half the government’s discretionary spending. It was 40 percent of the world’s total military spending — more than six times China’s $102 billion and 10 times Russia’s $59 billion.

Stories of wasteful, unnecessary and even fraudulent military spending are legion. In an unholy alliance with corporate “defense” contractors, Congress continues to appropriate billions for high-tech planes, ships, weapons systems and equipment the military doesn’t need and may never use.

In another speech, in 1952, Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

So the next time your congressman tells you we can’t afford better health care, better schools and better infrastructure, you will know why. That $689,000 mine-resistant vehicle in Owensboro is only the tip of the iceberg.


Ashland estate marks War of 1812 with artifacts, re-enactors

September 23, 2014

If you hear cannon and musket fire near downtown Saturday, don’t be alarmed. The colorfully costumed soldiers and Native Americans aren’t invading Lexington; they’re just performing for Living History Day at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate.

Ashland this year is marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812. And, no, it’s not two years late. Among the many little-known facts of this often-overlooked war is that, while it began in June 1812, the fighting didn’t stop until February 1815.

Ashland is commemorating the Treaty of Ghent, which Clay, John Quincy Adams and other American representatives negotiated with the British and signed on Christmas Eve 1814.

ghentjacketAs the congressman from Central Kentucky and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Clay was a politician for all seasons. He not only helped end the War of 1812, he helped start it, too. That dual role helped launch one of the most illustrious American political careers of the 19th century.

But Clay was hardly the only Kentucky connection to the War of 1812.

“Kentucky doesn’t have any battlefields for this war; the war itself didn’t happen here,” said Eric Brooks, Ashland’s curator. “But more than any other conflict this nation has fought, the War of 1812 was a Kentucky war.”

Kentucky contributed 25,000 soldiers to the War of 1812 — more than all of the other 17 states combined. About 60 percent of the war’s casualties were Kentuckians. At the battle of Wild Cat Creek in northern Indiana, almost every U.S. soldier was from Hopkinsville.

Much of the gunpowder used by American forces was made from saltpeter mined in Kentucky, including at Mammoth Cave. Newport was the U.S. Army’s major supply depot. Twenty-two of Kentucky’s 120 counties are named for War of 1812 veterans.

In 1812, Clay and other “war hawks” pushed for declaring war on Great Britain, which despite its Revolutionary War loss continued to mess with the new nation. Of greatest concern was Britain’s arming of Native American tribes, who were attacking white settlers who had taken their land.

While the War of 1812 settled most of those issues, it ended up being a military stalemate that came at high cost: British troops invaded Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol.

“We as a state need to understand the role we played in solidifying this nation as a legitimate and survivable nation in the world,” Brooks said. “Prior to the War of 1812, there were a lot of countries that thought the United States was a flash in the pan, that democracy would never work.”

Saturday’s festivities at Ashland will include re-enactors from Ohio and Michigan portraying the 2nd Kentucky Militia. There also will be Native American re-enactors, who will demonstrate tomahawk throwing at their encampment on the 17 acres that remain of Clay’s 600-acre estate, most of which is now the Ashland Park and Chevy Chase neighborhoods.

There also will be farm animals, crafts, special activities and an actress portraying Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who filed a highly publicized lawsuit against Clay trying to win her family’s freedom.

Ashland has several important relics related to the War of 1812 that will be on display. They include a copy of the Treaty of Ghent in Clay’s own handwriting, his place card at the negotiating table and an ivory cane he received as a gift.

The mansion also has one of two paintings Clay won while playing cards with his fellow negotiators. (In addition to being a masterful politician, Clay was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble.)

Ashland’s most important War of 1812 relic is the military-style coat Clay wore during treaty negotiations in Ghent, which is now in Belgium. Clay’s coat set the style for American diplomatic attire for decades. It was last worn by a Clay descendant when Ashland opened to the public as a museum in 1950.

“That’s the last time it will be worn, too,” Brooks said. “If for no other reason than there are not a lot of 6-foot-2, 145-pound men around anymore. And, obviously, it’s very, very fragile.”

If you go

What: War of 1812 Living History Day

When: 10 a.m. — 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27

Where: Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Road.

Cost: $14 adults; $7 younger than 18; $35 family.

More information: Henryclay.org, (859) 266-8581


Labor Day a reminder of how working people are falling behind

August 31, 2014

Each year on Labor Day, I think of Myles Horton and something he once told me.

Horton started Tennessee’s Highlander Center in 1932 and spent most of his 84 years crusading for racial, environmental and economic justice. Rosa Parks called him, “the first white man I ever trusted.” He was a mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During an interview in the 1980s, I asked Horton about his focus. “Working people,” he replied. “People who work for a living rather than own for a living.”

Labor Day celebrates Americans who work for a living, which is most of us. But each year there seems to be less to celebrate. Stock markets, corporate profits and executive compensation are hitting record highs. But at the other end of the spectrum, there aren’t enough good jobs for people who want to work.

There has been a lot of political talk about job creation, but a more important issue is the quality of jobs. More and more people are working hard at full-time or several part-time jobs and still can’t earn a decent living.

The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a non-profit think tank in Berea, issued a report last week that offers a gloomy assessment of recent trends. The full report is at Kypolicy.org, but here are some key findings:

Kentucky is experiencing job growth, but still needs 80,800 jobs to get back to the pre-recession 2007 level and accommodate population growth since then. Nearly one in four Kentucky part-time workers say they would rather have full-time jobs.

A lack of jobs has led to a decrease in the labor force as many Kentuckians have given up looking for work. One third of Kentucky’s unemployed people have been that way for a long time.

Wages are depressed by high unemployment levels. The late 1990s, when the unemployment rate was below 4 percent, was the only time in the past 35 years when Kentucky workers’ real wages actually grew.

The inflation-adjusted median wage has fallen 8 percent since 2001, and low-wage workers’ pay has fallen by 7 percent. Much of that is because higher-paying jobs that produce goods — especially in manufacturing — have been replaced by service jobs. Many service jobs pay low wages, which have been further depressed by a $7.25 hourly minimum wage that hasn’t been raised since 2009.

What are some solutions? First, the center recommends long-needed reform in Kentucky’s 1950s-era tax code to reflect the modern economy. That would provide more revenue for the state to invest in education and infrastructure, both of which would create jobs and spur economic development.

Another good idea the center recommends is raising the minimum wage. The value of the minimum wage has been eroded by inflation to the point that it is too little for an individual, much less a family, to live on.

What is especially obscene is huge, profitable corporations that pay workers so little they are eligible for public assistance. That leaves taxpayers subsidizing the profits of companies such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. Raising the minimum wage would save taxpayers money.

Opponents argue, as they always have, that increasing the minimum wage costs jobs and raises prices. But evidence shows those effects are minimal. A higher minimum wage, which also pushes up pay for workers just above it, puts more money in the pockets of people who will spend it, which boosts the economy.

Conservatives argue that Kentucky could spur economic growth by enacting anti-union laws and loosening environmental regulations. But that kind of growth does more harm than good. Pollution creates health problems and lowers the state’s quality of life. Anti-union laws boost business profits at the expense of workers.

Cynically named “right to work” laws make it harder for workers to organize for higher wages and better working conditions. States that enact those laws generally have lower average wages and more poor people than those that do not.

Similarly, repealing “prevailing wage” laws would make public construction projects cheaper, but only by taking money out of the pockets of the people doing the work.

It is no accident that the decline of the middle class since the 1970s has mirrored the decline of organized labor, which had a big role in creating the middle class in the first place. More and more of this nation’s wealth is rising to the top at the expense of everyone else.

Yes, we need to create more jobs. But we need to do it in ways that will improve the fortunes of people who work for a living and not just those who own for a living.

 


The real issues in this Senate campaign? Speeches offer a clue

August 9, 2014

140806Clinton-TE0255Former President Bill Clinton appeared at a fundraising luncheon in Lexington on Aug. 6 for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I spent time in the past week listening to a lot of speeches by the two U.S. Senate candidates and their surrogates.

We don’t hear as many political speeches as we used to. Campaigns have mostly become a series of TV attack ads in which candidates trash their opponents and stretch the truth as much as they can in 30 seconds.

Political speeches are longer than attack ads, increasing the odds that a candidate might mention accomplishments or goals or reveal the values behind his or her campaign.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, faced off Aug. 2 at the Fancy Farm Picnic, they mostly mocked each other and professed more love for the coal industry than for clean air, clean water and good health.

McConnell used the rest of his time to slam Gov. Steve Beshear, Attorney General Jack Conway, the “liberal” media and President Barack Obama, perhaps the only politician with a lower approval rating in Kentucky than his own.

McConnell vowed to repeal Obama’s health-care law, which has provided insurance to tens of thousands of Kentuckians who didn’t have it. He also urged voters to re-elect him to lead Senate Republicans so the gridlock in Washington can continue.

What McConnell did not mention was any accomplishments during his three decades as Kentucky’s longest-serving senator. He also didn’t say what he would do to improve the lives of average Kentuckians.

At least Grimes used some of her time to talk about how she would try to grow a middle class that has been shrinking for three decades because of globalization and “trickle down” economic policies that favor the wealthy.

Grimes called for raising the minimum wage and legislating equitable pay for women, both of which McConnell opposes. She also voiced support for strengthening Social Security and Medicare, making college more affordable and protecting the right of workers to bargain collectively for better pay and benefits.

With polls showing the race essentially tied, Grimes brought in former President Bill Clinton to campaign for her Wednesday in Lexington and Hazard. Clinton carried Kentucky in both of his presidential elections, and his administrations presided over an era of balanced budgets, job growth, welfare reform and economic prosperity.

Clinton is a gifted speaker with a knack for putting things in perspective.

“Creating jobs and raising incomes and giving poor people a chance to work into the middle class, that is the issue,” Clinton told those who attended a Grimes fundraising luncheon in Lexington.

He endorsed Grimes’ call for raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage, which hasn’t been increased in five years.

“We have not kept up with inflation,” Clinton said, adding that a reasonable increase in the minimum wage will create jobs, not kill them as Republicans always claim. “These people are going to spend that money; it’s going to circulate in their communities; all the local merchants are going to be better off; incomes will go up; more people will get hired; more people will get a pay raise.

“Creating more jobs and shared prosperity, as opposed to fewer jobs and more concentrated wealth with all the benefits going to people at the top, is the main issue people face in country after country and country,” he added. “We Americans have not done enough for broadly shared prosperity, because we have not done enough to create jobs.”

Clinton also discussed the political obstruction McConnell has led in Congress since Obama became president in 2009.

He contrasted McConnell to former U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford, a Democrat who while in Senate leadership worked well with colleagues and presidents of both parties, and to Beshear, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican, who together last year formed the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative to help diversify Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

“I’ve been everywhere, and I’m telling you: whenever people are working together, good things are happening,” Clinton said. “Whenever they spend all their time fighting, good things are not happening. The founders of this country gave us a system that requires us to treat people who disagree with us with respect and dignity and to make principled compromise so that something good can happen. Cooperation works, and constant conflict is a dead-bang loser.”

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


Photos from Bill Clinton’s campaign stop in Lexington today

August 6, 2014

Former President Bill Clinton was in Lexington today for a campaign fundraising luncheon at Carrick House for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat challenging the re-election of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Photos by Tom Eblen

140806Clinton-TE0033

 

140806Clinton-TE0036

 

 

140806Clinton-TE0055

 

140806Clinton-TE0068

 

140806Clinton-TE0177

 

140806Clinton-TE0194

 

140806Clinton-TE0237

 

140806Clinton-TE0255

 

140806Clinton-TE0278

 

140806Clinton-TE0298


Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

 

FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.


Crisis of children at the border brings out worst in some adults

July 22, 2014

detainees

Child detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18. Photo by Eric Gay/Associated Press.

 

I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our Southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.

Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, “1 flag, language, country” and “Americans First.”

Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.

Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn’t ask for his help.

Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.

A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: “I’ll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits.”

Immigration controversies are nothing new. “We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants,” comedian Jon Stewart said recently.

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?” Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.

Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that “swarthy” Germans “will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”

America’s immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.

On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?

Many of today’s protesters insist they aren’t against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly so — that America can’t take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters like those hanging banners that say “No Amnesty” are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.

Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today’s angry fringe abhors.

There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are “not our problem.” That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America’s chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive “banana republics” — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.

No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and her sister when they were young.

The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.

This a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.


Knoxville had a plan for revitalizing its historic downtown

July 7, 2014

knox1Knoxville’s Market Square, which dates to the 1850s, has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment district with plenty of nearby parking. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

I hadn’t spent any time in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1988, when I moved away after living there for seven years. I went back recently, and I was impressed with downtown’s transformation.

Knoxville was never a place I associated with good urban design. Planning and zoning always seemed haphazard, at best. Suburbia sprawled out for decades, mostly westward along traffic-choked Kingston Pike.

Like Lexington, two major Interstate highways converge in Knoxville. But instead of going around the city, as was thankfully done in Lexington, I-40 and I-75 went through the middle of Knoxville.

The infamous “Malfunction Junction” was improved while I was living there in the early 1980s, but it still left Knoxville cut up by expressways, on-ramps, off-ramps, bridges and a maze of one-way streets. It was a confusing place to drive, and a difficult place to walk or bike.

Many of those problems remain, but downtown is a different story.

knox2Long a conservative city with divisive politics, Knoxville leaders finally came together to organize the 1982 World’s Fair, which rehabilitated a former downtown railroad yard. That began a transformation that has made Knoxville’s city center the kind of happening place downtown Lexington aspires to be.

I spent a week in Knoxville recently, biking with friends in the nearby Great Smoky Mountains and dining each night at restaurants along Market Square and Gay Street, the main downtown thoroughfare.

When I worked in downtown Knoxville as The Associated Press correspondent, some of its old buildings were vacant and many were in need of repair. When office workers went home each evening, the city center became a ghost town.

“You and I can remember when tumbleweed blew down the streets in the evenings,” joked Alan Carmichael, an old friend who owns a downtown public relations firm, Moxley Carmichael, with his wife, Cynthia Moxley. “Now people pour in from the ‘burbs” for restaurants, bars, outdoor concerts and frequent festivals.

One big factor in downtown Knoxville’s revitalization has been historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings, such as the old JFG Coffee plant and Sterchi furniture company, which are now loft apartments.

It began with the World’s Fair, which restored the old L&N Railroad depot. But the big efforts came in the past decade with restoration of the Tennessee and Bijou theaters on Gay Street and the shops along Market Square, which date to the 1850s.

“We have very few old buildings downtown that haven’t been restored,” said Rick Emmett, the city’s downtown coordinator. “Now we’re spreading that to some of the historic commercial areas beyond downtown.”

Downtown’s restored charm and activity has attracted the chain retailers Mast General Store and Urban Outfitters. Regal Riviera, a new eight-screen movie theater complex, was tastefully integrated into Gay Street.

What made most of that possible was city government’s investment in infrastructure, combined with creative city partnerships with business to finance development.

Perhaps the biggest city investment has been in parking garages a block or two from major pedestrian areas. Parking is free on weekends and after 6 p.m. on weeknights.

The city owns and operates six of 12 major downtown garages. Another garage is under construction. The city donated the land and private interests are building the garage. As part of the deal, evening and weekend parking will be free to the public in perpetuity, Emmett said.

Knoxville’s downtown parking is marketed well, with maps, a smartphone app and a website, Parkdowntownknoxville.com.

“Knoxville has a compact, walkable downtown, but most people have to drive to get there,” Carmichael said. The garages have “made a huge difference in terms of bringing people downtown.”

Another key has been the Central Business Improvement District, funded by an extra tax on downtown property owners. It was controversial when created in 1993 — just as attempts to create one in Lexington have been controversial — but it has been a big success, said Carmichael and Emmett, who both serve on the board.

The tax generates more than $500,000 a year for infrastructure, beautification and grants and loans to help downtown businesses restore historic building façades. Some money also is used to sponsor frequent festivals and events that bring people downtown.

“What that has allowed us to do is fill in the gaps,” Emmett said of the improvement district. “I think it has been huge.”

knox3City-owned parking garages on side streets near popular pedestrian areas has made it easy for visitors and suburbanites to come downtown to dine and shop. 

 


RIP Howard Baker, the kind of politician we need more of today

June 30, 2014

Baker-Eblen

While I was on vacation in Knoxville last week, riding bicycles with a group of friends, I heard the news that former Sen. Howard Henry Baker Jr., 88, had died at his East Tennessee home. He was one of the classiest politicians I ever got to know as a journalist.

I interviewed Baker many times as a reporter for The Associated Press and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the years I lived in Tennessee, 1980-1988.

Baker also was the subject of one of my favorite portraits, shown above. I had gone to the Knoxville Zoo to write a short AP story about Baker donating a baby elephant. After the press conference, I stayed until after the other reporters had left. Baker’s hobby was photography, and it didn’t take him long to retrieve his Leica M from an aide and start taking pictures of his symbolic gift.

Baker was a Republican, through and through. He became his party’s leader in the Senate and President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff. Both of his wives had Republican pedigrees. Joy Dirksen was the daughter of the late Illinois senator Everett Dirksen. Three years after she died of cancer in 1993, he married Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, daughter of Alf Landon, a former Kansas governor who was the GOP presidential nominee in 1936.

But Baker was nothing like the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress now, who would try to stop the sun from rising if they thought it would cast President Barack Obama in a favorable light. In fact, Baker’s rise to fame and respect began during the Watergate hearings when he famously framed the central question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” The answers to that question would drive Republican Richard Nixon from office.

As a reporter, I always found Baker to be honest, straightforward, friendly and more interested in what was good for the country than just what was good for his party. We could use more like him in Washington today.


Kentucky needs leadership for change, not the politics of fear

June 8, 2014

I have had mixed emotions since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its long-awaited plan to reduce coal-fired power plant pollution, setting a goal to cut carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

I felt happy that my government was finally taking some action to fight manmade climate change, which threatens humanity’s safety, prosperity and future.

But I felt sad as I watched a bipartisan majority of Kentucky politicians fall all over each other to condemn this long-overdue action. Pandering to public fear may be good politics, but, in this case, it is an irresponsible failure of leadership.

SenateCandidatesRepublican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul called the EPA’s plan illegal and vowed to repeal it. (It is legal, according to a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.)

Not to be outdone, McConnell’s Democratic challenger, Allison Lundergan Grimes, launched an ad blitz repeating the coal industry’s “war on coal” talking points.

“The Obama administration has doubled down on its war on Kentucky coal jobs and coal families,” said another industry parrot, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, a Republican from Lexington.

State House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a Democrat from Prestonsburg, called the pollution-cutting plan “a dumb-ass policy.”

Let us review the facts:

An overwhelming majority of climate scientists think manmade carbon pollution is contributing significantly to climate change. We are already seeing the disastrous results: more frequent killer storms, droughts, shrinking glaciers and rising seas.

Public opinion polls show that a substantial majority of Americans, even in coal-dependent states, understand these realities and want stricter carbon limits.

In addition, health experts say the EPA plan will reduce cancer, heart disease and lung disease through fewer emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. The American Lung Association says the plan will prevent as many as 4,000 premature deaths in its first year alone.

So why all the political nonsense? It’s simple: the coal, utility and business lobbies that fund these politicians’ campaigns will see their profits suffer, at least in the short term.

The coal industry’s disinformation campaign portrays the desire for cleaner air and water as a “war on coal.” In reality, there are two “wars” on coal, and environmental regulation has only a minor role in each.

The first “war” is one on coal-company profits. It is being waged largely by natural gas companies, whose fracking technology has produced cheaper energy and hurt coal sales. Solar, wind and other renewable energy sources pose another threat.

The second “war” is being waged by coal companies and their political allies against miners and their communities. Kentucky lost about 30,000 coal mining jobs between 1979 and 2006, mostly because of industry mechanization. Add to that a historic disregard for mine safety. Kentucky legislators recently cut the number of state safety inspections at mines from six per year to four.

It is worth noting that the EPA’s new rule could have hit Kentucky much harder had it not been for the coal-friendly administration of Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Energy Secretary Len Peters pushed a plan, which the EPA adopted, to give states flexibility in achieving carbon-reduction goals. It set different targets for each state. Kentucky will be required to cut power-plant emissions by 18 percent, much lower than the national average of 30 percent.

Kentucky now gets more than 90 percent of its electricity from coal. The state has some of the nation’s cheapest power because the true cost of coal mining and burning to our health and environment has never been reflected in the rates.

America is gradually moving away from coal toward cleaner energy sources. This will happen no matter how loud and long Kentucky politicians scream. Unless this state acts aggressively to develop alternative energy sources to eventually replace diminishing coal reserves, Kentucky will be left behind — again.

Entrenched business interests have always predicted that each new environmental regulation would destroy the economy. It has never happened. Instead, regulation has sparked innovation that created new jobs and economic opportunities and made America a healthier place to live.

More limits on pollution will raise electricity rates in the short term. But Kentuckians will be rewarded with better health, a less-damaged environment, more innovation and a stronger economy in the future.

Change is hard, but it is necessary. Forward-thinking business people and citizens must demand that our politicians stop pandering to fear and become the leaders we need to make this inevitable transition as painless as possible. A brighter future never comes to those who insist on living in the past.


Time to press ‘pause’ on Rupp Arena and focus on rest of plan

May 31, 2014

 tbcTown Branch Commons would create a linear downtown park along the historic path of Town Branch Creek, which was buried underground a century ago.

 

Almost all of the talk and controversy about Lexington’s ambitious Rupp Arena, Arts & Entertainment District plan has focused on the arena. It reminds me of the old saying about the tail wagging the dog.

Renovating Rupp Arena is the most costly piece of the plan, especially because it would involve rebuilding the adjacent convention center. The total price is estimated at $351 million.

Rupp may seem like the dog, but it’s really just the tail when you look at the big picture. The dog is more than 30 acres of under-utilized parking lots south and west of the arena.

This sea of asphalt is ripe for redevelopment. It is well-located between the central business district and the University of Kentucky campus. These vast tracts of city-owned land, if properly planned and patiently developed, could become a huge economic and civic asset.

Ground leases to developers on the High Street lot could generate millions of dollars for public improvements, such as turning the Cox Street lot into much-needed green space as part of the outstanding Town Branch Commons plan.

That is why Mayor Jim Gray and the Lexington Center board should step back, take a deep breath, and refocus their energy on the dog instead of the tail. They thought they needed to renovate Rupp Arena first to generate excitement for the rest of the plan. That seemed logical, but it hasn’t worked, for many reasons.

First, Louisville’s costly KFC Yum Center hasn’t lived up to financial expectations, making taxpayers and legislators skeptical of another big arena project. The late rollout and changing details of Rupp’s financing plan didn’t help.

Then there are legitimate questions about public priorities. Would a fancier Rupp Area be nice to have? Sure. Is it essential? No.

Another issue is the economics of replacing the convention center. The space is oddly configured with no good way to expand. But the Lexington Center Corp. still owes $18 million from the last renovation a decade ago.

This is the big question: Would the convention center generate enough more business to make it worth tearing down the current facility to build a new and bigger one? Many people are skeptical.

But the biggest roadblock to a Rupp renovation has been UK’s lack of interest. President Eli Capilouto has made it abundantly clear that he thinks UK needs new academic buildings, laboratories and residence halls more than a basketball palace.

That’s a big switch from the past. UK officials have grumbled about Rupp’s perceived shortcomings since the late 1990s and have pushed renovation or replacement schemes ever since.

If Capilouto is serious about focusing on academics instead of athletics, I say good for him. That attitude is long overdue at UK. But it means the mayor must take a new approach.

Rather than continuing to push for a Rupp renovation now, Gray should focus the city’s energy on Town Branch Commons, which will make the concrete corridor along Vine Street more inviting to people and businesses. As the 2009 renovation of Cheapside showed, smart investment in public infrastructure attracts economic development.

The mayor should push to fund infrastructure to support the emerging redevelopment of Manchester Street, the future Rupp District’s western gateway. That includes finishing Town Branch Trail and linking it to the Legacy Trail.

Most of all, Gray and the Lexington Center Corp. should quickly flesh out a long-term redevelopment plan for the 22-acre High Street lot and start making deals. A good plan will encourage good development — and prevent bad development.

For example, the High Street lot would make a much better site for LOOK Cinemas’ proposed IMAX theater complex than the historic district across Broadway it wants to build in, which would set a terrible precedent.

Redevelopment also means replacing most of those surface parking spaces with more space-efficient garages, both near Rupp and in other key spots around downtown. Dispersed garages would get more frequent use than dedicated Rupp parking, plus they would give arena audiences more reason to patronize downtown businesses rather than hopping in their cars and driving home after an event.

Rupp and the convention center must be dealt with eventually. But, as all of the controversy has shown, those plans could benefit from more thought, economic analysis and salesmanship.

Waiting a year or two on a Rupp renovation also might make UK a more willing partner. UK’s Rupp lease expires in 2018, but the Wildcats will still need a place to play basketball. Having preached academics-first, Capilouto would lose credibility if he then tried to build a costly on-campus arena.

It’s time to refocus this discussion. The real economic potential of an arena district is the district, not the arena. Transformation will not come from making good facilities better, but from turning more than 30 acres of barren asphalt into a vibrant addition to the city. Lead the dog and the tail will follow.

 


Once Kentucky’s biggest cash crop, it’s high time hemp returned

May 19, 2014

hempknightPhotographer Thomas A. Knight took this photo of hemp stacks in the early 1900s. 

 

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer last week sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Protection and the Justice Department, seeking the release of 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds for planting in Kentucky test plots this spring.

Kentucky is one of 10 states seeking to once again legalize the production of industrial hemp, which has been banned since World War II because of resemblance to its botanical cousin, marijuana.

Hemp has only a fraction of the chemical THC that makes marijuana narcotic, so it has virtually no drug value. But states seeking to re-establish America’s industrial hemp industry have met stiff resistance from the DEA.

Hemp was Central Kentucky’s biggest cash crop during most of the 19th century, because the plant’s oil, seeds and fibers were very useful for such things as rope, fabric and even paper. But after prohibitionists began outlawing marijuana in the 1930s, hemp fell victim to guilt by association.

Could hemp become a big Kentucky industry again? Probably not. Should it be allowed to make a comeback as part of agriculture diversification? Absolutely. Banning hemp has never made much sense. And since nearly half the states have acted to decriminalize or allow limited marijuana use, it makes even less sense.

 


CentrePointe evolution shows benefits of design conversation

May 19, 2014

CentrePointeNowDeveloper’s rendering of the current design for CentrePointe, as seen from corner of Vine and Limestone Streets. Below, the original design rendering unveiled in March 2008.

 

As CentrePointe developer Dudley Webb continues blasting and digging the biggest hole in Lexington history, he has unveiled yet another new design for what he plans to build on top of it.

The city’s Court House Area Design Review Board last week approved what was, by my count, the seventh major CentrePointe redesign in six years. The consensus of the board’s two architects and other design professionals I spoke with is that this design, while still lacking in some respects, is far better than the version it replaced.

centrepointe1Unlike the monolithic tower Webb initially proposed, CentrePointe has evolved into a complex of buildings that fits into downtown without overwhelming it. The new design accomplishes the developer’s goals while respecting the city’s existing fabric and enhancing pedestrian activity.

CentrePointe will be a great addition to downtown — if Webb can get it built.

There are a couple of reasons why CentrePointe’s design has continued evolving. One is that the mix of tenants and uses has changed several times as Webb struggled to put together an ambitious, $394 million project in a difficult economic climate.

As currently proposed, CentrePointe would contain a 10-12 story office building, a 205-room Marriott hotel, a 110-unit Marriott extended-stay hotel, 90 apartments, several luxury condos, a Jeff Ruby Steakhouse, a Starbuck’s coffee shop and several retail stores at street level.

Another reason for CentrePointe’s evolution is that Lexingtonians and their elected and appointed leaders have become more sophisticated about the role design plays in downtown revitalization and economic development. Copying ostentatious towers in Atlanta or Austin is no longer good enough.

Like beauty, good architecture is often in the eye of the beholder. But there are generally accepted principles for good and bad architecture and urban design. That is why the review board process has been valuable in improving CentrePointe, and why city officials should keep pushing for “design excellence” guidelines for future downtown construction.

 

 

 


War on Poverty vets see lessons for today’s Appalachia reformers

May 13, 2014

BEREA — The War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary has reignited debate about its effect on places such as Eastern Kentucky, where President Lyndon B. Johnson famously came to launch the “war” from a Martin County laborer’s front porch.

Like the real wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to declare the War on Poverty a costly failure. America still has plenty of poor people. Eastern Kentucky continues to lag the nation in education, health care and job prospects beyond a boom-and-bust coal industry where little of the wealth ever trickles down.

Declaring failure is easy, but it isn’t accurate. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that estimated without the government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012.

140409WarOnPovVets0026A

Bob Shaffer of Berea holds a photo of himself with a mule presented to the Republican Governors Conference in Lexington in May 1969 by Wanita Bain, Knox County, Secretary of the Kentucky Poor People’ s Coalition, which he organized and advised. Photos by Tom Eblen

Eastern Kentucky is significantly better off than it was a half-century ago, thanks largely to government-funded infrastructure and assistance. But the question remains: Why wasn’t the War on Poverty more successful?

I recently posed the question to two aging veterans of that war. Their observations offer food for thought as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers ramp up their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, the latest in a long series of efforts to “fix” Eastern Kentucky’s economy.

Robert Shaffer, 84, is retired in Berea. In 1963, he accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was inspired to public service by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.

The next year, after the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, Shaffer began working with poor people in new community action agencies in his native New Jersey. He was recruited to Washington, but wanted to work on the front lines instead. After reading Harry Caudill’s book,Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”

Hollis West, 83, is retired in Lexington. A coal miner’s son from southern Illinois, he served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill. He worked in community action and job-training agencies in Michigan, New York and West Virginia before coming to Knox County in 1965.

Although the War on Poverty is often portrayed as welfare, Shaffer said, “It wasn’t welfare. It was using social services for economic development and ownership.”

West and Shaffer worked with community groups to start small, worker-owned companies, mostly in furniture, crafts and garment-making and train workers to do those jobs. They said they created hundreds of jobs, although many were later lost as U.S. manufacturing jobs moved overseas.

Their biggest accomplishment was creating Job Start Corp. in 1968. It evolved into Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has created more than 18,000 jobs and is recognized as one of the most enduring legacies of the War on Poverty.

“I think we made a significant change in parts of Eastern Kentucky,” West said. “I brought the toughness, and Bob brought the brains.”

Toughness was important. West said he often traveled with an armed bodyguard. A key principle of War on Poverty programs was that poor people should have a voice in decisions that affected them. Local politicians and power brokers saw that as a threat.

Hollis West

Hollis West

“These people weren’t used to other people having money to work with that they didn’t control,” Shaffer said. “It was a pretty hostile environment.”

Shaffer said Gov. Louie B. Nunn stymied War on Poverty efforts and tried to get West fired. Officials resisted giving poor people a voice on the Area Development District boards that allocated federal money. Then, as now, many of those boards were controlled by good ol’ boy networks.

Shaffer and West think the War on Poverty would have had a bigger impact had Richard Nixon, a Republican, not been elected president in 1968 and scuttled his Democratic predecessor’s programs. But the ideas behind the War on Poverty still have value today, they said.

“You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”

What are the lessons of the War on Poverty? Not that poverty can’t be overcome, or that government efforts won’t work. It is that change will never come from people with a vested interest in the status quo.


Mayer may not become mayor, but he has some good ideas

May 10, 2014

What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.

Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington’s police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.

Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn’t seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.

Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.

The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn’t even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.

“A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center,” Mayer said. “But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city.”

DannyMayer

Danny Mayer

Among Mayer’s proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families’ pockets and fewer people in jail.

Mayer’s two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.

Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington’s local food economy and developing the city’s “greenways” — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.

Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.

Greenway development could help connect Lexington’s fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.

More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.

Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation’s industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.

Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.

Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.

Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.

“I see that as a 21st century economy,” he said. “These markets and segments are growing, but we haven’t talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s.”


Lexington native takes active role in New York carriage horse fight

April 29, 2014

hansenChristina Hansen, a driver and spokeswoman for New York City carriage drivers, returns Star to a stall in New York’s Clinton Stables on Jan. 28. AP photo by Richard Drew.

Christina Hansen grew up in Lexington liking horses, but not having much to do with them. She didn’t learn to ride until she went to graduate school in North Carolina.

Hansen now earns a living as a horse carriage driver in New York’s Central Park and has become the public face of opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages that have long been a fixture in the city.

Animal rights groups back de Blasio’s plan. But Hansen’s allies include actor Liam Neeson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the American Horse Council and the editorial pages of New York’s three big newspapers, which rarely agree on anything.

The scrappy tabloid New York Daily News has turned the issue into a crusade, with almost daily reports labeled, “Daily News Save Our Horses Campaign.”

Quinnipiac University’s respected poll recently reported that New Yorkers want to keep carriage horses by a three-to-one margin.

“He had no idea what he was getting into,” Hansen said of the new mayor. “It’s a lot harder to eliminate a business that’s been there for 156 years and is heavily regulated than he thought.”

I caught up with Hansen, 33, on Tuesday. She was back in Lexington to see her mother, Elizabeth Hansen, chair of Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of Communications, inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. It was clear that some of her mother’s media savvy had rubbed off on her.

Hansen became a carriage driver almost by accident. After graduating from Emory University, she went to the University of North Carolina to study history, thinking she would be a college professor like her parents. Her father, Gary Hansen, teaches sociology at the University of Kentucky and is chair of the Community & Leadership Development program.

After earning her master’s degree, Hansen decided academia wasn’t for her. When her husband, art historian Peter Clericuzio, went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she followed him to Philadelphia. With an interest in history and horses, she found work as a carriage-driving tour guide.

Hansen loved the job, but was shocked when people would roll down their car windows and curse her for “animal cruelty.” It made her realize that many people outside Kentucky never see horses or know anything about them.

In 2009, Hansen helped a friend, fellow Philadelphia carriage driver Pam Rickenbach, start Blue Star Equiculture in Palmer, Mass. The non-profit helps working horses in need of rescue and is a retirement home for Philadelphia and New York carriage horses.

That was Hansen’s introduction into advocacy, and she soon found herself recruited by friends to attend meetings of an anti-carriage group in New York to learn their strategy. The following year, she moved to New York to drive a carriage.

Soon after she arrived, there was a well-publicized accident involving a carriage horse that dumped his driver and two passengers in Columbus Circle. Nobody, including the horse, was seriously hurt, but the accident became a turning point in the debate.

Because other industry spokesmen were unavailable, Hansen drove her carriage to Columbus Circle and offered herself for interviews. The next day, drivers welcomed the media into their stables to show how well the horses were being cared for.

Since then, Hansen has been a principal spokesman for the city’s 300 carriage drivers, who earn middle-class livings by working their 200 horses. The two men Hansen drives for are second-generation carriage owners and drivers.

Animal rights groups, including the ASPCA and PETA, claim carriage horses are being mistreated and have no place in a crowded city. The mayor has suggested replacing horse-drawn carriages with electric, antique-looking cars, which has drawn opposition from the Central Park Conservancy.

Hansen argues that horses have been living and working in New York as long as people have, and the carriage industry has a good record for safety and horse care. The city regulates stable conditions and requires that horses get five weeks of pastured vacation each year and retire at age 26.

“The best way to insure the welfare of a horse is for them to work, to have a job,” she said. “This is what they have been trained to do.”

Hansen’s media experience over the past two years could position her well for a career in public relations. But she plans to continue driving a carriage.

“This is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I’m still teaching history, to people who are on vacation and happy, and I get to hang out with a horse all day. The carriage is my desk and I have an 834-acre cubicle that is one of the greatest parks in the world.”