At the Red Mile, horse racing’s ‘evolution’ looks like a casino

September 26, 2015
Instant racing machines in Lexington's first legal gambling parlor at Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram

Instant racing machines at the Red Mile. Photo by Charles Bertram


I went to the Red Mile last week to check out what the 140-year-old harness track calls “The Evolution of Horse Racing.”

It was sunny and mild, the kind of afternoon I hope for each April and October so I can slip away to Keeneland for a few hours. I love to watch the horses run, place a few bets and soak up the atmosphere.

This afternoon, the weather didn’t matter. Horse racing had evolved indoors. I found a cavernous hall filled with 902 machines that flashed and chimed amid pulsing background music.

The man at the front desk said this $42 million facility had been busy since it opened Sept. 12. I must have caught a lull. There were only a couple of dozen patrons, an even mix of men and women, blacks and whites. Most were older than me. A few had canes; at least two used walkers.

The next thing I noticed was there were no horses. Amazing! Horse racing had evolved to the point that horses were no longer necessary.

When I walked in, the man at the front desk issued me a “rewards” card on a red lanyard, an instruction sheet and a $5 voucher. I chose a machine with a comfy seat near the bar and got started.

That’s when I saw horses, or at least grainy images of them. They were in videos that flashed briefly on the machine’s tiny screen after I placed a bet and pushed a few buttons.

The machines looked like slots. The hall looked like a casino. I had to remind myself that this joint venture of the Red Mile and Keeneland was really The Evolution of Horse Racing, presumably “as it was meant to be.”

What distinguishes these machines from slots, proponents say, is that they are forms of pari-mutuel wagering, and winners are chosen by the outcome of thousands of previously run horse races rather than by random number generators.

I placed a bet on the machine and chose my numbers — the order of finish for three horses that once raced against one another. To help me choose, I could look at charts indicating past performances of the horse, jockey and trainer.

I lost my first couple of free voucher dollars trying to figure out how the machine worked. On my third bet, lights flashed and bells clanged and the machine told me I was a winner. I printed a voucher and discovered I had won $84, although I’m not sure how.

I tried a couple more machines before deciding it was a good time to cash my voucher and call it a day.

The Family Foundation, a conservative activist group, has gone to court to challenge the legality of these “historical racing” machines. The case before Franklin Circuit Court is complex, and it likely will take a couple of years to decide.

The legal question comes down to whether these machines are pari-mutuel wagering, which is legal in Kentucky, or slots, which are not. Can something that looks and quacks like a duck actually be an evolved horse?

If the tracks lose in court, they may have recovered their investment by then. The General Assembly also could change the law. Legislators may not want to give up this new source of tax revenue, not to mention the 200 new jobs at the Red Mile and more at facilities near Henderson and Franklin.

I have nothing against gambling, when it is enjoyed responsibly by people who can afford it. But from a public policy standpoint, gambling encourages a “something for nothing” mentality among politicians and voters that a modern, progressive state can be created without raising anyone’s taxes.

Many horse people argue that expanded gambling revenue is essential to the survival of their industry. I understand their concern. Without the promise of this new facility, the Red Mile probably would have been redeveloped years ago. Neither harness nor Thoroughbred racing are as popular as they once were.

However, the experiences of other states show that when expanded-gambling revenue starts flowing, politicians lose interest in subsidizing the horse industry.

There are no easy answers to preserving Kentucky’s signature horse industry. But horsemen could take pointers from the once-struggling and now-thriving bourbon whiskey industry: Improve your product and do a better job of marketing to make it more popular.

Otherwise, it can be a fine line between evolution and devolution.

When candidates talk about prosperity, whose do they mean?

May 10, 2015

Have you ever wondered why Kentucky is always near the bottom when states are ranked by economic health and well-being?

There are several reasons. But one is that many of our politicians are either wealthy business executives who fund their own campaigns or people who suck up to wealthy business executives to fund their campaigns.

Either way, the interests of wealthy business executives are what become priorities, and they have as much in common with the interests of average Kentuckians as, well, night and day.

This is why politicians perpetuate several economic myths, and why many policies that would improve the economy and lives of many Kentuckians are rarely enacted. What are these myths?

To start with, business executives are not “job creators.” In fact, executives often make more money and Wall Street rewards their companies when they cut jobs rather than create them.

The real job creators are average people who buy the goods or services businesses produce. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of all economic activity and indirectly drives much of business capital spending and investment. The more money people have to spend, the more jobs will be created.

Many successful executives also keep wages for everyone but themselves as low as possible to boost “efficiency” and profits. That’s why average people should beware of politicians who are against raising the minimum wage, which has declined in value for decades as executive compensation has soared.

Opponents always argue that raising the minimum wage would do more harm than good, but decades of experience has shown otherwise. Raising the minimum wage also leads to higher pay for other low-wage workers, giving more people more money to spend and boosting the economy.

Beware of politicians who advocate so-called “right to work” laws. These laws aren’t really about protecting anybody’s “right to work”; they are about weakening unions and protecting big employers’ “right” to pay workers as little as possible.

Beware of politicians who rail against government regulation. Sure, you can always find examples of over-regulation. But regulation keeps business executives from cheating and hurting the rest of us and ruining the environment we all share.

It is no coincidence that America’s economy was most prosperous in the decades when average workers’ wages were higher, unions were stronger and government was a watchdog of business instead of a lapdog.

Things started changing in the 1980s with “pro-business” policies and “trickle-down” economic theories that resulted in the highest level of wealth inequality in nearly a century, not to mention the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and a slow, uneven recovery.

Beware of politicians who want to abolish “Obamacare.” They want to take health care away from several hundred thousand Kentuckians with no plan to replace it other than vague promises of “free-market” solutions.

The free market has never provided good health care for low-wage people. Most hospitals and clinics began as charities, not businesses. Almost every other industrialized nation has a health care system run largely by government, delivering better care at less cost than our private insurance-based system.

Beware of politicians who are “friends of coal.” Kentucky will continue mining and burning coal for decades, but coal is the past, not the future. Most coal jobs will never return. Repairing coal’s damage to Kentucky will be a huge, costly challenge, and we don’t need to make the mess any bigger than it already is.

Renewable energy is the future, and the more Kentucky politicians deny climate change and cling to the past to protect coal-industry profits, the further behind this state will fall.

What Kentucky needs are leaders willing to invest in education, entrepreneurship, economic infrastructure beyond just highways and the social services necessary to keep average people healthy and able to work.

We need leaders with enough courage to create a modern tax system that grows with the economy and eliminates special-interest loopholes that sap government of the resources needed to address Kentucky’s many challenges.

As you listen to the candidates for governor seek your vote in the May 19 primary and Nov. 3 general elections, ask yourself this question: When they promise prosperity for Kentucky, whose prosperity are they talking about? Yours or theirs?

Before death, R.J. Corman permanently protected 1,200-acre farm

April 11, 2015

150409CormanFarm0012Before his death in 2013, railroad magnate R.J. Corman put permanent conservation easements on his 1,200-acre Jessamine County farm, which includes a 65-acre natural area around Jessamine Creek. Photo by Tom Eblen


NICHOLASVILLE — April Corman Colyer says her father always told her and her siblings that the farm he and they grew up on and gradually expanded to more than 1,200 acres would never be developed or sold out of the family.

When railroad magnate R.J. Corman said something, he meant it.

Before he died in August 2013 after a long battle with cancer, the founder of R.J. Corman Railroad Group arranged to put permanent conservation easements on the farm, the family planned to announce Sunday.

Without those easements, the beautifully landscaped property that stretches from the U.S. 27 Bypass at Nicholasville to U.S. 68 near Wilmore would have been prime subdivision land in a fast-growing county known for suburban sprawl.

It is the second such action by a prominent Central Kentucky family announced in recent weeks. Arthur Hancock and his wife, Staci, said March 20 that they had put conservation easements on their 2,200-acre Stone Farm in Bourbon County.

Both were arranged with help from the non-profit Bluegrass Conservancy, which is celebrating 20 years of helping landowners permanently preserve more than 24,500 acres of farmland and natural areas in the region.


R.J. Corman in 2004. Photo by Charles Bertram

Corman’s farm includes 65 acres near the headwaters of Jessamine Creek that the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission has designated as the R.J. Corman Natural Area.

“He told us that we would always have the farm, that it would always be something that our family could enjoy, but we would never be able to sell or develop it,” Colyer said.

“My Dad had a great vision and foresight, and he knew what would happen had he not set something like this in place,” she added. “Inevitably, the pressures of development are too great.”

Colyer is director of public affairs for the railroad services company her father started in 1973. R.J. Corman Railroad Group now has 1,500 employees in 24 states, including 700 in Kentucky.

She and her husband, Korey, and other family members live in five houses on the farm, including the one where Corman grew up as the son of a state highway toll booth worker.

The farm has been improved with 14½ miles of white plank fences and 15 miles of roads and recreation trails. It hosts several 5K races each year and an annual community Fourth of July celebration.

Corman planted hundreds of trees on the property, including maple trees that are tapped each year for syrup that is given to customers.

The farm adjoins about 800 acres that contain company shops and other facilities, including the headquarters office and aircraft hangars that are frequently used as event space for charity fundraisers.

The farm has about 300 head of cattle, chickens, a corn crop and a garden that provides vegetables for the company cafeteria.

The conservation easements permit no more than another 2 percent of the farm to ever be used for impervious surface, including buildings or roads, Colyer said.

Map“He wanted it preserved for his grandchildren and many generations to come,” she said. “He would always say when I was younger that if the land was to ever be sold, then the proceeds had to go to charity. It doesn’t exactly work that way now, but he has put constraints in place so that it can’t be sold.”

Colyer said she is happy with the decision, because the farm is as special to her as it was to her father.

“It has been a constant in my life no matter what was going on,” she said. “It’s home, but it’s more than that. It’s part of me. It’s where my heart is.”

Corman’s best friend, Central Bank President Luther Deaton, lives on 20 acres adjacent to a back corner of the farm. They could look across the farm and see each other’s houses a mile away.

“When he started buying that land, he said, ‘I don’t want anything to ever happen to it. I just want to make it beautiful so people could enjoy it.'” Deaton said. “And you’ve seen what he’s done.

“I get up every morning and look out at all that land and the cattle, all the green grass and trees,” Deaton added.

Conservation easements can have significant estate and tax benefits for landowners, said Mackenzie Royce, executive director of the Bluegrass Conservancy, the non-profit land trust.

“They can make it more affordable to pass land between generations,” she said, adding that no public funding is used and the land remains on tax rolls.

Royce said these two major easements are “a testimony to how it has begun to catch on in the community. The pace of conservation has really accelerated.”

The Bluegrass Conservancy was created in 1995 and recorded its first conservation easement in 1998, a cattle farm in Jessamine County. Conserved properties since then have included horse farms and natural areas along the Kentucky River.

“We’re not anti-development or anti-growth,” Royce said. “We’re about helping farm families in our community conserve our most strategic land for future generations and balancing that with the growth that we know is going to happen.”

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

Development holds promise for downtown Lexington’s eastern edge

January 26, 2015

MidlandPart of the proposed development area along Midland Avenue. Photo by Charles Bertram. 


Plans for about $50 million of mixed-use development along Midland Avenue from East Third Street to south of Main Street could reshape downtown’s eastern edge, a strip of land that has long been searching for a new purpose.

Until the 1960s, what is now Midland Avenue carried trains instead of cars. It was a major collection of railroad tracks, flanked by freight depots, industrial buildings, auto repair shops and lumber yards.

The Herald-Leader building replaced a century-old lumber yard on the east side of the tracks, and the Triangle Foundation created Thoroughbred Park to clean up the west side. Still, much of the surrounding land remained vacant or under-utilized.

mapLast month, four property owners got together and won unanimous Urban County Council approval to create a tax-increment financing district that could provide $17 million in taxpayer support for new public infrastructure in the area.

The proposed TIF district is now pending before the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority. If approved, some of that infrastructure money also could eventually benefit three public parks in the district: Thoroughbred, Charles Young and the new Isaac Murphy Art Garden.

The plans also would include a pedestrian and bicycle trail along Midland Avenue that would help form the eastern end of the proposed Town Branch Commons.

The Commons would be a string of small parks along the historic path of long-buried Town Branch, a creek that flows beneath downtown from a spring under the Jif peanut butter plant on Winchester Road to Rupp Arena, where it resurfaces.

Developer Phil Holoubek owns the south end of the TIF district, a triangular plot where Main and Vine streets meet that has been an eyesore since a former bank building was demolished. Plans to build a suburban-style drugstore there were wisely abandoned.


Developer Phil Holoubek

Holoubek thinks he has finally found a way to build an attractive, urban-style development on the difficult lot, which sits atop the Town Branch culvert and a major utility junction. His building would have 54 apartments on three floors above 17,000 square feet of street-level retail space.

“It’s like a giant Tetris game,” he said. “But we’re getting it figured out.”

The Lexington Parking Authority has agreed to invest $2.8 million for a three-story, 160-space garage on the site, providing much-needed public parking for the east side of downtown. Holoubek is donating the very point of the lot to the city for Town Branch Commons.

Land north of Thoroughbred Park is owned by former vice mayor Mike Scanlon and his ex-wife, Missy Scanlon. Plans call for it to become offices, retail space and townhouses or apartments overlooking Thoroughbred Park.

The most sensitive part of the plan is the northern section, which adjoins the East End neighborhood along East Third Street. It is mostly owned by Community Ventures Corp., a non-profit that works to improve low-income communities.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp.

After extensive meetings with East End residents, Community Ventures has proposed a mixed-use development on 2.75 acres at the corner of Midland and East Third, where it already has one building. The development would include pedestrian-friendly retail space at reduced rents for local businesses, with apartments above.

The property is adjacent to the Charles Young Center and park, which the city recently spent $500,000 improving. TIF district land west of the park is being eyed for affordable housing development.

Holoubek said the entire project is a good mix of commercial development and job-creating community improvement, which has been conceived with a lot of input from neighborhood residents.

Some of those residents remain wary. “It’s just a plan to help promote gentrification and make the colonization of the East End easier,” Corey Dunn said.

But Billie Mallory, an East End activist, said most people in the area are cautiously optimistic the development will benefit the East End, which lost half its population and much of its prosperity as society integrated and families moved to the suburbs.

The East End has been on the upswing since the Lyric Theatre, at East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane, was restored, the Isaac Murphy Art Garden project began and the Lexington Market, a former convenience store at East Third and Race streets, was improved to include much-needed fresh food for the area.

“Third street is our main street,” Mallory said. “I would like to see whatever goes along Third Street benefit the residents.”

Mallory said Community Ventures has always been a good partner for the neighborhood, “so we’ll just have to see. We can’t do anything but trust them.”

Click here to read Tom Martin’s Q&A with developer Phil Holoubeck and Kevin Smith of Community Ventures Corp. about their proposed Midland Avenue project.

Ark park fiasco a wakeup call to aim higher with taxpayer incentives

January 11, 2015



The dispute over tax breaks for a proposed Noah’s Ark theme park is ridiculous on many levels, but it offers a good economic development lesson for Kentucky politicians and taxpayers.

In case you haven’t been following the story, the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, which opened the Creation Museum in Boone County in 2007, is trying to build the Ark Encounter attraction in nearby Grant County.

AIG believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story that is contrary to both scientific evidence and the views of most Christians. Among other things, AIG’s followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, just as in The Flintstones cartoons.

The Creation Museum drew a lot of tourists — believers and scoffers alike — so AIG announced plans in 2010 to build a big theme park around a 500-foot-long, seven-story-high version of Noah’s Ark.

This time, though, AIG wanted taxpayer subsidies. And it got a lot. But it wants more, even as the project has been scaled back because of fundraising shortfalls.

The city of Williamstown agreed to a 75 percent break on property taxes for 30 years and a $62 million bond issue. The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the park $200,000 plus 100 acres of land at a reduced price. The state has promised $11 million in road improvements for the park’s benefit.

The state also agreed to provide $18 million in tourism tax credits, but it withdrew the offer after it became clear that Ark Encounter jobs would go only to people who pass the group’s religious litmus test. You would think state officials could have seen that coming.

Kentucky politicians should never have agreed to these incentives in the first place. And you have to wonder: Would they have done the same for a Wiccan World theme park? Buddha Land? Six Flags over Islam?

AIG has threatened to sue, and it has rented billboards around Kentucky and in New York’s Times Square to wage a holy war of words against what founder Ken Ham calls “secularists” and “intolerant liberal friends” who object to his ministry feeding at the public trough.

The sad thing is, AIG might have a case. It doesn’t help that in 2013, the General Assembly foolishly passed a conservative feel-good law that protects religious groups from vague “burdens” imposed by state government.

So don’t be surprised if AIG — a tax-exempt group with more than $19 million in annual revenue and enough extra cash to rent a billboard in Times Square — argues in court that it is “burdened” by being denied millions more in taxpayer subsidies.

The ark park mess is a symptom of a bigger problem with Kentucky’s economic development strategy. Despite recent reforms, officials aim too low too often. Rather than focusing on high-paying jobs that will move Kentucky forward, they are often happy to subsidize jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

It is an unfortunate reality that state and local governments must sometimes throw money at corporations to bring jobs to their areas. It has become quite a racket, as companies play cities and states off one another, demanding more and more concessions that shift the burden of public services to everybody else.

Sometimes, such as with the Toyota plant in Georgetown, incentives are good investments. But Kentucky has shelled out money for far more clunkers.

The ark park is a great example of a clunker. It would create mostly low-wage service jobs while reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as a state of ignorant people hostile to science.

Think about it this way: For every low-wage job the ark park would create, how many high-wage jobs would be lost because science and technology companies simply write off Kentucky?

But economic development incentives are only part of the problem. Kentucky’s antiquated tax code no longer grows with the economy, and it is riddled with special-interest loopholes that leave far too little public money to meet today’s needs, much less make smart investments for the future.

The ark park fiasco should be a wake-up call for Kentucky politicians to raise their standards.

This state will never become prosperous by spending public money to create low-wage jobs and reinforce negative stereotypes. Prosperity will come only through strategic, long-term investments in high-wage jobs, education, infrastructure, a healthy population, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

Everybody say amen.

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.

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,

“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. 


Inequality will keep growing as long as big money controls politics

March 24, 2014

The gap between America’s rich and poor has been growing for nearly four decades. Many people worry about what this could mean for our economy, our society — and even the survival of our republic.

This trend is a stark reversal of the four previous decades, and it has sparked a lot of populist anger, from Occupy Wall Street on the left to the Tea Party on the right.

Consider, for example, a recent study that found incomes in Kentucky rose 19.9 percent from 1979-2007, but that 48.8 percent of that money went to the top 1 percent of earners. According to the Economic Policy Institute, that 1 percent saw their incomes rise an average of 105.1 percent, while the average income of the other 99 percent of Kentuckians grew only 11.2 percent.

Democrats have made inequality and economic opportunity their main campaign theme. Republicans are talking about it, too, but offering very different solutions for rebuilding the American middle class.

“Economic and Political Inequality in the United States” is the title of a conference March 27-28 at the University of Kentucky featuring several nationally recognized speakers. The event is free and open to the public. Details at:

The keynote speaker is Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Ellen Goodman, whose talk is titled “Inequality: Working Moms, Designated Daughters, and the Risks of Caregiving.” She speaks at 7:30 p.m. March 27 at Memorial Hall.

The next day, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in the Student Center’s Worsham Theater, speakers include longtime UK history professor Ron Eller and economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy research in Washington. Topics include inequality in Appalachia and how the “culture wars” have influenced these trends.

I will be interested to hear what the speakers have to say. I will be especially interested to see if they can go beyond lamenting the problems and offer solutions that could have some chance of success in America’s increasingly toxic political environment.

For most of human history, stark inequality was the rule, contributing to both the rise and fall of countless empires. This began to change in the late 1600s with the Enlightenment, which led to creation of the representative democracies now found in most developed nations.

Representative democracy led to government-regulated capitalism and a flowering of technology and prosperity that, while uneven, was far better than anything that preceded it.

In this country, coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, it led to a dramatic narrowing of the wealth gap and an accompanying rise in economic and social opportunity and mobility that made America the envy of the world.

Wealthy industrialists realized that a prosperous middle class was needed to buy the goods they manufactured. A rising tide really did lift all boats. But research shows that America now lags many other nations in economic opportunity and mobility.

The spread of capitalism has lessened inequality in much of the world, although, as Pope Francis has consistently reminded us since assuming leadership of the Roman Catholic church a year ago, not nearly as much as it should.

While the global economy has been good for some overseas workers, it has cost many American jobs. It also has created a worldwide “race to the bottom” for labor costs, while making financial elites fabulously wealthy.

The collapse of communism seemed to show that, over the long haul, capitalism works best when it goes hand-in-hand with representative democracy. Or does it? China’s economic success since the 1980s under a ruling-class dictatorship raises some troubling questions.

Those questions are even more troubling amid the rising power of big-money influence in American politics, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling opened the floodgates. There seems to be a new Golden Rule: those with the gold can make the rules.

While conservatives now worry about oppressive government, liberals worry about oppressive capitalism and corporate-controlled government. The rise of inequality since the 1970s has mirrored the rising clout of big business and high finance and the decline of organized labor.

Until the balance of power shifts back toward what it was a generation ago, it is hard to imagine that the balance of wealth will, either.  

Improving Lexington water quality messy, expensive and worth it.

November 4, 2013

Rob Walker installed a pipe as Tommy Davis ran a track hoe at a pump station under construction on Winchester Road near Hume Drive. Photo by Pablo Alcala


I often say that if our state and federal governments worked as well as Lexington’s government does, America would be a lot better off.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is hardly perfect. (Trick-or-treat when?) But the city delivers services efficiently, and our nonpartisan mayor and council members usually seem to care more about the public interest than special interests. Unlike Congress, they’re a pretty responsible bunch.

A good example is the consent decree negotiated in 2008 between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the effects of which will soon be hard to miss.

Construction crews will begin this month digging up streets for the first three of more than 80 sewer-improvement projects. The most noticeable early one will be just south of St. Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road, where underground sewer pipes are being replaced with bigger ones.

The work will take at least 10 years. Citizens may get more information at about specific projects and disruptions they will cause.

The total cost of this work could be a half-billion dollars or more, which means sewer fees are sure to rise eventually. Lexington has a lot of catching up to do.

“There’s no shortage of stuff to fix out there,” said Charles Martin, who as director of the city’s Division of Water Quality is overseeing what he says is the biggest capital construction project in Lexington history. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Many politicians like to beat up on the EPA, especially because it won’t allow coal companies to destroy what is left of Eastern Kentucky’s natural landscape for the sake of higher profits and a few short-term jobs.

But when the EPA sued Lexington in 2006, citing decades of chronic water pollution, city officials acted responsibly. Rather than posture and scapegoat, they began working with the EPA to figure out how to fix the problems. They knew that a clean environment was in Lexington’s best long-term interest.

Lexington’s problem is basically that infrastructure hasn’t kept up with growth and development. A lot of rainwater that should have been going into storm sewers is going into sanitary sewers instead. When it rains hard, there are some nasty overflows into basements, streets and streams.

The problems are the result of years of infrastructure neglect, Martin said. The city didn’t always require developers to build adequate sewer systems, and many old sewers weren’t updated when they should have been. Lexington started treating sewage in 1918, but there was no dedicated fee for sewer system maintenance until the 1980s.

The city started addressing these problems in a serious way four years ago, replacing inadequate sewer pump stations around town and adding a new one. Fayette County has seven watersheds but only two sewage treatment plans. So a lot of sewage must be pumped all over town.

In addition to installing new sewers, Lexington is trying some creative solutions, such as storage tanks to handle short-term storm-water volume.

Officials also are exploring natural solutions. Environmental engineering has come a long way since the 1950s, when the creeks like those that flowed through what is now the Zandale neighborhood were rerouted into ugly concrete drainage canals.

These approaches are not without controversy. Julian Campbell, a botanist, and Robert Stauffer, a geochemist and hydrologist, wrote op-ed pieces in the Herald-Leader recently saying that the city’s remediation plan for Cane Run Creek between Interstate 75 and Citation Boulevard could do more environmental damage than good.

Campbell and Stauffer raise some good questions. But this is complicated stuff, and the city has some excellent environmental talent on its team, too. Officials must respond to their critiques thoroughly and publicly so citizens can have confidence that things are being done right.

In addition to fixing old problems, the consent decree will make sure Lexington doesn’t add new development without also adding the sewer infrastructure to handle it. Some people won’t like that, but it makes sense.

This whole process will be complicated, expensive and a lot of hassle. But it’s the right thing to do, and it will leave Lexington in a better position for future growth and prosperity.

To read Tom Martin’s Q&A with project director Charles Martin, director of the city’s Division of Water Quality, click here.


Andy Barr votes to take food from poor, then serves up baloney

September 19, 2013

Today’s George Orwell Award goes to U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, for the press release reproduced below. For a different view of the situation, read this guest column in today’s Herald-Leader by the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.




Town Branch Commons: an idea that has worked in other cities

February 3, 2013

Hardly a week goes by that people don’t tell me how they wish the open block where the Webb Companies hopes to build CentrePointe could become a public park instead.

As the block awaits redevelopment, it is planted in grass and surrounded by a plank fence to resemble a horse pasture. It has become a popular gathering place during downtown festivals. (At other times, it is off-limits, just as horse pastures are.)

CentrePasture’s popularity points to a couple of ironies about Lexington.

One is that we have a lot of open space, but little public space. The other is that we are surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful rural landscapes — an artful blend of the natural and man-made — but our central business district is a generic jungle of concrete and asphalt. There are only a handful of small parks or plazas downtown, and few trees of any size.

Although recent renovations of Triangle and Cheapside parks have been excellent, the comments I hear make me think Lexington residents still yearn for more public space downtown.

Town Branch Creek resurfaces west of Rupp Arena. Herald-Leader photo

The Downtown Development Authority on Monday will choose the winner of a design competition for Town Branch Commons — some form of linear park on city-owned property along the path of the long-buried stream that gave birth to Lexington.

This project would involve bringing parts of the creek back to the surface, either literally or symbolically, to create attractive public spaces for nature and a variety of activities. A jury of design professionals was to recommend a winner to the DDA board after closed-door presentations Friday by the five finalists.

The competition attracted 23 entries. The finalists are among the world’s best landscape architects and designers: Coen + Partners in Minneapolis; Denver-based Civitas; the Netherlands firm Inside Outside; Scape Landscape Architecture of New York; and Copenhagen-based Julien De Smedt Architects working with Balmori Associates of New York.

All five finalists’ designs will be on display at the Downtown Arts Center from Tuesday until Feb. 22, including during Gallery Hop on Feb. 15.

I can’t wait to see the designs, especially after hearing the finalists make presentations about their previous work Thursday at the Lexington Children’s Theatre. They showed amazing projects from all over the world, including in cities such as Bilbao, Spain, that had far more daunting problems than Lexington has.

(An interesting side note is that three of the six presenters were women: design legends Diana Balmori and Petra Blaisse and one of landscape architecture’s rising stars, Kate Orff.)

(Also worth mentioning: several of the landscape architects showed projects that used wetland parks to effectively solve storm-water problems. Lexington officials should remember that as they decide how to spend millions of dollars on storm water issues under terms of the federal consent decree.)

I can already hear Lexington’s naysayers: This whole idea is impractical, unaffordable and frivolous. It is none of that.

The compelling argument for Town Branch Commons is not esthetic, but economic. This sort of urban public space has been an effective way to attract people and investment dollars to cities of all sizes, from Seoul, South Korea to Yonkers, N.Y.

People who have attended recent Commerce Lexington trips have seen it work in Greenville, S.C., where a long-neglected riverbank became Falls Park; and in San Antonio, where a once-buried stream similar to Town Branch became the Riverwalk, now Texas’ second-largest tourist attraction after the Alamo.

New York’s High Line project turned an abandoned elevated rail line into a linear park that has transformed a once-decaying section of lower Manhattan. Despite huge cost overruns, the Millennium Park that Chicago built over an urban rail yard has more than paid for itself with the private development it has attracted.

The kind of public-private partnership envisioned with Town Branch Commons is under way in Atlanta, which is turning an abandoned rail line around the city into 1,300 acres of parks and 33 miles of trails, and in Louisville, which has raised more than $60 million in private money for the 21st Century Parks project that is creating 4,000 acres of linear parkland and 100 miles of trails around that city.

What excites me about the potential of Town Branch Commons was mentioned frequently by the world-class designers who submitted plans. This isn’t about building Disney World in a swamp; it is an authentic reflection of Lexington’s history, geography and culture.

Pioneers chose Town Branch as the site for their town, laying out Lexington’s grid according to the creek’s path rather than a compass. Its banks were where early Lexingtonians gathered for fun and refreshment before the stream was polluted, built over and eventually buried.

Town Branch Commons will require public money and even more private money. But it could be a great long-term investment, one that uses the authenticity of Lexington’s past to create both an amenity and economic generator for the future.

Habitat works with Lexington to restore foreclosed homes

December 17, 2012

Neema Dominic puts in volunteer hours painting a foreclosed home on Savoy Road that is being renovated by Habitat for Humanity.  Habitat has renovated four foreclosed homes in Lexington this year and will do a fifth next year as part of a city program to keep foreclosed homes from becoming vacant liabilities in their neighborhoods. Photos by Tom Eblen


Lexington has a couple of big housing problems: there is too little affordable housing, and there are too many vacant houses in neighborhoods all over the city, especially since the wave of foreclosures that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

A partnership between city government and Habitat for Humanity has offered small help for both problems, but it has left officials optimistic that it could lead to bigger solutions.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray will help dedicate a renovated house at 224 Savoy Road in a well-kept, middle-class subdivision off Versailles Road. After a foreclosure in 2010, that house and another down the street sat empty for more than two years. That worried neighbors, including Urban County Council member Peggy Henson, who lives around the corner.

“These were sturdy, good, well-built homes,” Henson said. “But they weren’t going to stay that way the longer they sat empty.”

Those two houses were among 10 foreclosed, vacant properties the city was able to acquire with federal stimulus money through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

The city turned the 10 properties over to Habitat for Humanity for $1 each. Five had homes that could be renovated; the others will become building sites for new Habitat homes. Four of the renovations have been completed; the fifth will be done next year, as will the new construction.

Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based non-profit organization made famous by former President Jimmy Carter’s volunteer efforts on its behalf, builds affordable homes for low-income people willing to put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” to become homeowners.

In Lexington, Habitat has typically built new homes, usually in neighborhoods north of Main Street in the East End, West End and Winburn, where inexpensive lots were available. This venture was Habitat’s first at renovating existing homes in other neighborhoods, and Rachel Smith Childress, the organization’s Lexington executive director, said it turned out to be a winner for everyone.

“Our families like them because they’re in other nice neighborhoods and have amenities that aren’t typically part of our homes,” she said. “Plus, it removes vacant houses from neighborhoods, increases property values for everyone and increases property tax revenues for the city.”

For example, the house at 224 Savoy Road, which was built about 1960, is brick with hardwood floors and vintage knotty pine paneling. The kitchen includes a dishwasher. None of that is in a new Habitat house.

But the house needed work, including bathroom and kitchen remodeling, which was done by Habitat staff, volunteers and future Habitat homeowners. Whirlpool donated other needed kitchen appliances.

Money for the renovation was donated by business sponsors Paul Miller Ford, Ford Motor Co., PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation. Support for the other renovations has come from Ashland Inc., Calvary Baptist Church and Back Construction.

More than 500 hours of work was performed by the new owners of 224 Savoy Road, Emmanuel Katchofa, and his wife, Marceline Ilunga. He was a physician in the Congo before they and their five children fled the war-torn country and were resettled in Lexington by the U.S. State Department and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Katchofa and Ilunga both now have jobs, although he is unable to practice medicine because his license is not valid in this country.

Legal refugees from the Congo and other troubled African nations now make up about half of the 15 or 20 Lexington families Habitat is able to help become home owners each year. That is because refugees come here without bad credit histories and with strong motivation to succeed, Childress said.

Henson said she and her neighbors are happy to have the vacant house on Savoy Road restored and occupied.

“It was a real blessing to the neighborhood,” she said. “Those properties are looking great now, and it will be really good to have folks living there.”

Although federal stimulus money is no longer available, Henson and Childress hope Habitat’s partnership with the city on rehabilitating vacant houses or building on abandoned lots can find new ways to continue.

“We’re talking with the city about property and buildings and partnerships,” Childress said. “But the need for affordable housing goes beyond home ownership.

“Everyone is not going to be a homeowner. We really have a huge gap in decent rental housing that is affordable in Lexington. It’s a huge need.”

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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.

When cutting back on welfare, don’t forget corporate welfare

December 8, 2012

When a poor person gets a government handout, it’s called welfare. When a rich corporation gets one, it’s called an economic development incentive.

With local, state and federal government budgets tighter than ever, social programs are getting a hard look. But what about corporate welfare?

The New York Times started a good conversation last week with a three-part investigative series called the United States of Subsidies. Reporter Louise Story spent 10 months analyzing corporate tax breaks, gifts and other incentives in all 50 states, which she figured add up to at least $80 billion in annual taxpayer subsidies to business.

Business subsidies have mushroomed since the 1980s, when automakers started pitting states against one another to host new assembly plants. The strategy worked so well that other industries demanded freebies, too.

A big reason corporate welfare has flourished is that politicians love being able to announce lots of new jobs coming to their area. (They often are out of office when those jobs never materialize or leave for another state offering better incentives.)

From a national perspective, it is a zero-sum game. State and local incentives do little or nothing to grow the national economy; they just determine where in the nation the growth will occur.

But it’s more insidious than that. Incentives redirect billions of tax dollars to corporate bottom lines instead of to improving education, health, safety, infrastructure and making other public investments that will create genuine, long-term economic development.

The Times website ( has state-by-state breakdowns of incentives and a searchable database of recipients. It shows that the nation’s biggest business incentive Santa is high-growth, low-wage, high-poverty Texas, at $19 billion a year. West Virginia and Oklahoma give up incentives equal to one-third of their budgets.

The Times calculates Kentucky’s annual incentives at $1.41 billion — about 15 percent of the state budget, or $324 per Kentuckian. Those include $264 million in personal income tax credits; $108 million in sales tax refunds, exemptions and discounts; and $69.2 million in corporate income tax reductions, credits or rebates.

The Times reports that most Kentucky incentives, $569 million worth, go to mining, oil and gas industries — no surprise there, given their political clout. That is followed by $341 million for agriculture and $180 million to manufacturers.

As is true nationally, some of the biggest Kentucky incentive recipients in recent years were automakers: $307 million for Ford; $83.8 million for Toyota and $10 million for General Motors. Given their high wages and large supplier networks, those might be good investments.

But the big head-scratcher in the Times’ database was $94.1 million in incentives to Tyson Foods from 1995-2009 for a low-wage chicken-processing plant in Henderson County. Is that the kind of economic development Kentucky taxpayers should be subsidizing?

While the Times’ report is impressive in its national scope, there has long been debate about the value of incentives. The Herald-Leader published an investigative series in 2005 that questioned the value of many Kentucky tax breaks and other giveaways. The report resulted in some improved accountability, but did little to stem the flow of tax money into corporate pockets.

A state-commissioned study issued this summer came up with incentive figures smaller than the Times reported, but still pretty staggering: $1.29 billion between 2001 and 2010. The report said 577 companies took incentives to locate 55,173 jobs in Kentucky at a cost to taxpayers of $23,385 per job.

The incentive system favors large corporations over small businesses — often the employers who are already in a community and aren’t looking to leave. Officials have responded by coming up with some incentives for them, too, which just further drains government coffers.

How do we stop this racket, where cities and states compete to steal jobs from one another? It would be great if Congress could pass a law, but it probably can’t. Still, with about 20 percent of state and local government budgets coming from federal dollars, somebody needs to be looking out for the national interest.

Taxpayers should demand reform of these corporate welfare systems, just as they did social welfare systems in the 1990s. But it won’t be easy. Corporations employ more lobbyists and make more campaign donations than poor people do.

Amid ‘Obamacare’ fight, another vision for health insurance reform

August 6, 2012

Medicare turned 47 years old last Monday. Bill Mahan celebrated by setting up a booth on Main Street to try to convince passersby that America’s health insurance crisis could be eased considerably if everyone had Medicare.

The Lexington retiree collected about 125 signatures for his petition. It asks members of Congress to support proposed legislation that would strengthen Medicare, which now covers more than 47 million seniors and disabled people, and make it the vehicle for providing basic universal health insurance coverage.

But Mahan spent much of his seven hours on Main Street listening to people tell him their horror stories: lack of insurance, inadequate coverage, baffling paperwork, treatment they can’t afford to get and medical bills they can’t afford to pay.

“I’ve heard so many stories, it’s just unbelievable,” said Mahan, 68, who went on Medicare three years ago. “I don’t know what to tell these people.”

What Mahan mostly tells them is that these problems are likely to continue until the United States has a single-payer health insurance system.

Under proposed single-payer systems, private doctors and hospitals would provide health care services, but the government would pay the cost from tax revenue. It is the system used in Canada and most European countries, which the World Heath Organization says offers better care for less cost than the United States does.

President Harry S. Truman proposed a single- payer system after World War II, but business interests fought it. President Lyndon Johnson was able to muster enough political support to create Medicare for seniors, which he signed into law July 30, 1965.

When President Barack Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress pushed through health care reform legislation in 2010, a single-payer system wasn’t even considered. That was because of opposition from insurance companies, which wouldn’t even allow a “public option” choice.

Instead, we ended up with reform legislation that will cover more people and outlaw the worst insurance industry abuses but still will leave an estimated 23 million people uninsured and do too little to curb rising costs.

Republicans have vowed to repeal “Obamacare” but have proposed no adequate alternatives. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky complains that Obama’s health care law is “Europeanizing” America, but he fails to mention that those European systems provide high-quality, universal care with much less administrative cost and hassle.

The most radical GOP plan, proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and endorsed by many Republican leaders, essentially would privatize Medicare. But an independent analysis by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that Ryan’s plan, rather than reducing costs, would increase them dramatically, including almost doubling seniors’ out-of-pocket expenses.

Ironically, Obama’s reform law was based on market concepts developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney created a similar — and rather successful — health insurance system for Massachusetts when he was governor.

Single-payer advocates say “Obamacare” is better than what we had, but it just further subsidizes private insurance companies. It reinforces our current system’s fatal flaw: the inherent conflict between businesses trying to make as much money as possible and society’s need to provide basic health care to everyone at an affordable cost.

“Insurance companies don’t improve health care,” Mahan said. “They only add cost and complexity.”

Improving and expanding Medicare would require tax increases, but single-payer advocates think that, on balance, they would amount to far less than we now pay for private insurance that costs more and covers less with each passing year. That has been the experience in countries with single-payer systems.

House Resolution 676, introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to create a single-payer system, has been endorsed by dozens of consumer groups, church denominations and organizations representing thousands of physicians and other health professionals. Advocacy groups include Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare (, Improved Medicare for All ( and Physicians for a National Health Program (

But without public pressure, the legislation is unlikely to get a fair hearing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives or the Democratic-controlled Senate. The health insurance industry is just too powerful.

During Romney’s recent overseas campaign trip, the Republican presidential candidate praised Israel for having a healthy population while spending only 8 percent of gross domestic product on health care, compared to 18 percent in the United States.

How does Israel do it? Since 1995, the Jewish state has had a non-profit insurance system heavily controlled by the government that provides basic health care for everyone. Imagine that.


Review board likely to nix CentrePointe pedway

March 6, 2012

Lexington's pedways include this one across Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

Designs for the stalled CentrePointe development have gone from bad to good for one reason: they must pass muster with the Courthouse Area Design Review Board.

When the hotel-retail- condo project was proposed in 2008, the board appointed by Mayor Jim Newberry to oversee the historic district let developer Dudley Webb do almost anything he wanted. But the board’s expectations have gotten much higher since Jim Gray became mayor 14 months ago.

The board meets March 28 to vote on what is supposed to be Webb’s final design. Based on board members’ comments at a preview Feb. 15 — and further improvements Webb’s architects made in response to that feedback — I expect the designs will be approved, except for one thing: the pedway.

When Webb and his brother, Donald, were remaking Lexington’s skyline with tall towers in the 1980s, they connected them with pedways, enclosed walkways through the sky that keep pedestrians out of the weather and off the street. The pedways provide access to Lexington Center, which includes Rupp Arena and convention facilities, from the Lexington Financial Center, Victorian Square, the Radisson, Triangle Center and the Central Bank building.

About two dozen North American cities built pedway and tunnel systems from the 1950s to the 1980s for people who didn’t want to venture outside on their trips from attached suburban garages to downtown offices and stores. Pedways were seen as safe havens against urban crime and decay, as well as amenities to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls.

Like most urban planning ideas from the auto-centric second half of the 20th century, about the best thing you can say now about pedways is that they seemed like a good idea at the time.

Pedways might make some sense in harsh-weather cities such as Calgary, Alberta; Minneapolis, and Chicago. But cities below the frost belt have stopped building pedways — and even started tearing them down.

Since 2002, Cincinnati has been in the process of demolishing much of its pedway system. Officials didn’t like the way it limited healthy street life and cluttered the skyline, especially in such places as Fountain Square. They also could see big maintenance costs on the horizon as the pedways aged.

CentrePointe’s first three designs included two pedways, one spanning Upper Street to connect the development to the Lexington Financial Center parking garage. The other would have spanned South Limestone, going to a parking deck beneath Phoenix Park that no longer is planned.

CentrePointe was approved in late 2008 for tax-increment financing, or TIF, which means tax revenue generated by the development could be used to pay for “public” improvements needed to build the project. That included $3 million for the two pedways.

Webb is now proposing only the South Upper Street pedway, which would pass between two historic buildings across the street, the 1846 McAdams & Morford building and the circa 1860 building that houses McCarthy’s Bar and Failte Irish Imports.

When questioned by Courthouse Area Design Review Board member Kevin Atkins, a senior adviser to the mayor, Webb said the pedway was needed for easier access to parking and to provide a sheltered walkway between CentrePointe’s hotel and the convention center.

But Atkins wasn’t buying it, and neither were two others on the five-member board, chairman Mike Meuser and Michael Speaks, the dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design.

Speaks seemed especially annoyed by Webb’s suggestion that pedestrians might feel safer in a pedway than on the street. “I live downtown and it’s perfectly safe,” Speaks said. “Probably safer than the suburbs.”

CentrePointe’s redesign process has focused a lot on creating street-level pedestrian activity. The board is loathe to let Webb do anything that would detract from it.

It also seems reluctant to clutter the skyline between two historic buildings on Upper Street. EOP Architects has worked hard to keep that narrow block from becoming a service alley, and a pedway wouldn’t help.

Does the board think a pedway is worth more than $1 million in TIF “public improvements” money? I doubt it. Plus, there is the issue of future maintenance costs. Lexington has recently been hit with big bills for repairing and replacing aging parking garages. The pedways we already have aren’t getting any younger.

For all of those reasons, expect the review board to put its collective foot down and reject the CentrePointe pedway.


UPike plan should lead to discussion about raising coal severance tax to improve Kentucky education

January 15, 2012

The political wild card in this year’s General Assembly is a high-powered proposal to make private University of Pikeville a state-supported school.

The idea is being pushed by House Speaker Greg Stumbo and former Gov. Paul Patton, who is now the University of Pikeville’s president. The idea has solid support from southeast Kentucky legislators and community leaders. Gov. Steve Beshear has ordered a thorough study.

Like many ideas that sound good but get complicated as you dig into them, this proposal needs thorough study. But it also provides an excellent opportunity for broader public discussion about how more educational attainment could improve life in Kentucky and how we should go about paying for it.

Having the state assume ownership of a private school is a very Kentucky thing to do. That is how five of the state’s eight public universities came to be: Western and Eastern in 1906, Murray and Morehead in 1922 and the University of Louisville in 1970.

“This sounds like the same thing: We’ve got a campus here and all we have to do is make it a state school,” said Bill Ellis, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University and author of the new book, A History of Education in Kentucky. “It all comes down to politics and who has the votes.”

Creation of those state universities was generally a good thing for Kentucky, Ellis said. It made education more accessible and brought economic development and culture to communities across the state.

Many people in southeast Kentucky argue that their region — with some of the state’s highest rates of poverty and lowest levels of educational attainment — has been shortchanged.

Southeast Kentucky is part of the service areas of Eastern and Morehead state universities, but both campuses are a long way from many of the region’s towns and hollows. Pikeville and surrounding areas would no doubt benefit economically and culturally by having a state university.

But for years now, the General Assembly has cut state support for higher education. Given that, can Kentucky taxpayers afford another university mouth to feed? Stumbo and Patton say that is not a problem: Rather than using general fund money, state support can come from Eastern Kentucky’s coal severance tax revenues.

At this point, let’s step back and look at the big picture. What do legislators really need to do to help Appalachian Kentucky catch up with the rest of the state — and Kentucky catch up with the rest of the nation?

Let’s begin with the notion that more state support for education is essential. That is because nothing has more power to improve Kentucky’s economy and society than educational attainment.

Regardless of whether Pikeville becomes a state university, lawmakers should find ways to reverse the budget-cutting trends that have contributed to skyrocketing tuition at Kentucky’s state universities and made them less affordable.

The stated goal of the University of Pikeville proposal is to make higher education more affordable and attainable for mountain students. But are there more cost-effective ways to do that?

Rather than taking on another campus, would Kentucky get more bang for the buck by using coal severance tax money to finance scholarships for mountain students at Kentucky’s existing public and private universities, including Pikeville?

Perhaps those scholarships could be supplemented with loans from severance tax money that would be forgiven if students lived and worked in the mountains for a few years after graduation. That could curb the region’s historic “brain drain.”

But let’s not stop there. The Pikeville proposal creates a perfect opportunity for a broader discussion about the severance tax that Kentucky has levied on the coal industry since the 1970s, and how that money should be used.

The severance tax rate of 4.5 percent, which hasn’t changed in decades, is among the lowest of major coal-producing states. It generates more than $200 million a year. But over the years, much of that money has been wasted on building vacant industrial parks and other political pet projects, plowed back into subsidies for the coal industry or gone to benefit parts of Kentucky nowhere near the coalfields.

If the severance tax’s goal is to improve life and create a new economy in the coalfields for when all of the coal is gone, there could be no better use for that money than improving educational attainment.

So regardless of whether the University of Pikeville receives state support, the General Assembly should take this opportunity to raise the coal severance tax to national norms and focus the money on education. That’s right: Turn this political wild card into a trump card for Kentucky’s future.

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.

Occupy Wall Street strikes a chord with many

October 16, 2011

Businessman Richard Knittel joined pickets Wednesday evening as part of Lexington's Occupy Wall Street on Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The casually dressed Occupy Wall Street protesters in downtown Lexington last Wednesday evening looked curiously at one another when Richard Knittel approached wearing a suit and tie.

He didn’t want to argue with them. He wanted to join them.

Knittel, 69, of Versailles, explained that he isn’t against capitalism — among other things, he is chairman of a Canadian company that uses environmentally friendly technology to mine metals. But he agreed with the protesters that big money has too much influence in America, especially when it comes to profit-driven disregard for the environment.

“I want people to see that even people with suits on are joining this,” Knittel said before picking up a spare protest sign and waving to passing motorists on Main Street.

Since Occupy Wall Street protests began Sept. 17 in New York’s financial district, similar demonstrations have sprung up in more than 1,300 American cities.

The Lexington protest began Sept. 29 on the sidewalk outside Chase Bank Plaza. Protesters — whose numbers have ranged from two to two dozen — said they have tried to be polite and not make a mess. They have appreciated Lexington police for keeping drunks and troublemakers away. Supporters bring them food, and Gene and Natasha Williams let them use restrooms in their restaurant across the street.

Some people have cast Occupy Wall Street as liberals’ answer to the conservative Tea Party. Both movements include average, passionate people waving protest signs and American flags. Both also have their share of crackpots, are fuzzy about their goals and solutions and are easy for critics to lampoon.

Still, both movements have struck chords with the public because, for so many people, the American dream seems to be slipping away. People on the left, right and in the middle think the system has been rigged against them.

I visited Lexington’s Occupy Wall Street protesters several times last week. Most were 20-something students and low-wage workers, although the group included teachers, retirees, a veteran, a local food activist, an unemployed computer programmer and a man who said he is homeless. Some talked idealistically, but most just seemed worried about the future.

The protesters said they are concerned about economic injustice and political corruption. They aren’t against capitalism, just the crony capitalism and greed that they blame for the financial crisis and widening economic disparity.

Among common themes: The rich have gotten exponentially richer while middle-class workers have lost economic ground for three decades. Financial speculators, who largely caused the 2008 crash and were bailed out by taxpayers, haven’t been brought to justice. Politicians of both parties receive so much corporate cash that they are only looking out for business interests.

“This is about shaping the national discourse so it is more people-based than profit-based,” said Robert Wilhelm, 24, a University of Kentucky student. “People who were part of the Tea Party before it got corporate sponsorship have even come by and said they agree the system is broken.”

Janet Tucker, 64, a retired nurse, said she thought it was important to come out and protest. “But I don’t spend the night here; I leave that to the younger folks,” she said.

“We’re spending trillions on wars overseas, and we can’t afford to deal with all the problems we have here,” Tucker said. “It’s not that there isn’t money; it’s where it is. We need to look at our priorities as a nation.”

Protesters said they have been encouraged because, for every obscene gesture or shout of “get a job” they receive from a passerby, they get 10 thumbs-up or honks of support.

“A lot of folks are struggling, and I think they’re making these connections,” said Greg Capillo, 23, a college graduate who works in a coffee shop. “The ultimate issue is corporate involvement in democracy, because it speaks to the structural elements of democracy itself.”

It is hard to predict the future of Occupy Wall Street. The demonstrations will surely wane as winter comes. Protesters say they don’t want to be co-opted by the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party movement has been by the Republican Party.

The significance of protest movements is never the movements themselves, but how they shape public opinion over time. A national poll last week by Time magazine found that 54 percent of respondents viewed Occupy Wall Street favorably. That compared to 27 percent who viewed the Tea Party favorably, down from 41 percent in December 2009.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party might not be the best analogy. Better ones might be the Bonus Army veterans who occupied Washington during the worst of the Depression, or even the civil rights movement of a generation ago.

Throughout history, this nation has been forced to address obvious injustice and inequity when enough people objected. The protesters on Wall Street — and on Main Streets across America — seem to be hoping that this time will be no different.

Economic slump reflects middle-class decline

September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day.

Chances are, if you are one of the majority of Americans who labor rather than own for a living, you aren’t feeling very happy.

This hasn’t been a good year for middle-class workers, much less for the poor. In fact, it hasn’t been a good three-plus decades.

Economic and political forces have hammered working people. Real income for the bottom 80 percent of Americans has been stagnant or falling since the late 1970s. Few paid much attention until the 2008 financial crisis, because the trends were masked by rising personal and government debt.

During these years of middle-class decline, it has been fashionable to bash labor unions. Perhaps that is because people take for granted the things unions fought to make part of the American workplace — the eight-hour work day, overtime pay, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance and safe working conditions. Unions led the fight to end child labor and discrimination against minorities and women. They played a big role in creating Social Security and other government safety-net programs.

After World War II, as much as 25 percent of the work force belonged to unions, and their contracts set standards by which many non-union workers benefited. Last year’s census showed union membership at 11.9 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. America now has 14.7 million union members — roughly the same number of people now unemployed.

Unions have plenty of flaws; all institutions do. But they serve an important role in balancing the power of business. Power without balance becomes abusive. We have seen that with business, labor, government and even churches. It is no coincidence that the decline of middle-class income and security over the past three decades has followed the declining influence of organized labor.

Statistics show that all real income growth since 1979 has gone to the wealthiest 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans, with the wealthiest 1 percent gaining the most, by far. Wealth inequality is the highest it has been since the 1920s.

The deep economic hole that politicians are debating how to fill was caused mostly by financial speculation, unfunded wars of choice and irresponsible tax cuts. But you hear little talk in Washington about a crackdown on Wall Street, real tax reform or scaling back military adventurism.

That is because wealthy interests have largely taken over both political parties. Democrats still give lip service to the middle class and poor, but the GOP has become a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America.

President Barack Obama speaks Thursday to a joint session of Congress. He will propose a plan aimed at creating jobs, reviving the economy and improving his chances for re-election. Republicans will be against whatever he proposes, because they don’t want the economy to improve anytime soon. If the economy improves, they have less chance of taking back the White House.

The Republican prescription for economic recovery is to do more of the things that wrecked the economy in the first place: less business regulation and more tax cuts. The problem with trickle-down economics is that it only makes wealth trickle up, as the past three decades have shown.

Republican leaders also want aggressive debt-cutting austerity, but only for those who can least afford it. As history has repeatedly shown, this strategy only makes a weak economy weaker.

But it all depends on your perspective. The Main Street economy where most of us live and work is stuck in neutral. But Wall Street profits, corporate cash reserves and executive compensation have never been better. Times are good for the people whose campaign contributions and lobbying have all but shut average Americans out of the political debate.

The public is angry, and Tea Party activists are the most visible reflection of that. But their misguided philosophy plays right into the hands of big business. Why else do you think billionaires are funding those Tea Party organizations?

I am usually not a pessimist, but I see little hope for recovery as long as the interests of corporate America are so divergent from those of working Americans. The economy won’t improve until average people have more money to spend. Until the middle class finds political voice to demand that things change — as organized labor did a century ago — things won’t change.