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?

If Congress, state won’t raise minimum wage, Lexington should

March 29, 2015

The minimum wage has a big impact on low-wage workers, many of whom must rely on public assistance to make ends meet, as well as the overall economy, which is driven largely by consumer spending.

The $7.25 federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009. Its value adjusted for inflation has lost more than 25 percent since its peak in 1968.

Congressional Republicans have refused to raise the federal minimum wage. But many states and cities have raised theirs, realizing its importance to both low-wage workers and local economies.

The Democrat-led Kentucky House recently approved a state minimum-wage increase that was rejected by the Republican-led Senate. Louisville’s Metro Council in December approved a gradual minimum-wage increase to $9 over three years, which is being challenged in court.

Urban County Council member Jennifer Mossotti has proposed gradually raising Lexington’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 2017 and tying future increases to the consumer price index. The proposal also would gradually raise the $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers, who haven’t seen an increase since 1991, to $3.09 over three years.

Council members are unlikely to consider the issue before June. But when they do, Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, has put together a good report about the low-wage Lexington workers who would be affected.

Among the highlights: An increase would directly lift wages for about 20 percent of Lexington workers, 90 percent of whom are older than 20 and 30 percent of whom are 35 and older. Fifty-seven percent are women, 54 percent work full-time and 26 percent have children at home. Read the full report at: Kypolicy.org.

Businesses usually oppose minimum-wage increases — if not the very idea of a minimum wage — saying that increasing labor costs forces them to put people out of work and raise prices. Studies have generally shown those effects to be negligible, and the economic impact to be positive.

A minimum-wage increase is long overdue. If federal and state officials won’t do it, Lexington should join other cities and states that are.

In fight over payday lending abuses, it’s churches vs. almighty dollar

February 22, 2015

I love free enterprise, but I believe there is a special place in hell for business people who exploit the poor and vulnerable and politicians who enable them.

A good example is the payday lending industry.

A diverse coalition of Kentuckians, including conservative and liberal religious leaders, plan to gather Tuesday at the state Capitol to urge lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation limiting the interest and fees on short-term payday loans to an annualized rate of 36 percent.

That is still high compared to normal borrowing costs. But it would be a big improvement over the 400 percent or more that payday lenders can now charge customers.

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

Photo illustration by Charles Bertram

These two-week loans of $500 or less are designed to help working people cover expenses until their next paycheck. But studies show three-fourths of these loans are renewed or turned into new loans, sometimes trapping borrowers in an endless cycle of debt.

Payday lending emerged as an industry in the 1990s. With about 20,000 storefronts, plus online sites, payday lenders made $40.3 billion in loans and collected $7.4 billion in revenues in 2010, according to the Consumer Federation of America.

Kentucky is one of 32 states that allow triple-digit interest rates on payday loans. The state’s 781 payday lending stores in 2010 made $995.7 million in loans averaging $350 each, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.

Payday lenders collect at least $121 million a year in interest and fees from some of Kentucky’s poorest people, according to the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending. Most profits go out of state — or farther. Advance America, one of Kentucky’s largest payday lenders, is owned by Mexico’s Grupo Elektra.

The Defense Department has limited the interest that can be charged to military personnel at 36 percent, as the Kentucky legislation seeks to do for everyone. Kentucky has put a few restrictions on payday lenders in recent years, but meaningful reform has always been blocked by legislators with lame excuses.

This year’s bill is sponsored by Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, a Lexington Republican, and co-sponsored by three Senate Democrats, Reginald Thomas of Lexington, Gerald Neal of Louisville and Dennis Parrett of Elizabethtown. Gov. Steve Beshear has supported the interest rate cap since 2009.

Tuesday’s rally is organized by the Kentucky Coalition for Responsible Lending, an impressive list of 89 organizations, including 33 faith groups. Members include statewide associations of Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples of Christ.

Many of these faith groups disagree on other issues. But the Bible’s Old and New Testaments are clear about the sin of “usury” — charging excessive (or, according to some verses, any) interest on loans to people in need.

With this level of religious support, you would think the bill would be a cinch. But there is a higher power at work: the almighty dollar. Payday lenders spent more than $151,000 last year lobbying legislators and gave them tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.

Legislators who have blocked this bill over the years have had many excuses: there is a demand for payday loans; people with bad credit have few alternatives; it’s free enterprise.

But the truth is there are alternatives, and poor people in the 18 states with double-digit interest caps have found them. Some credit unions, banks and community organizations have small loan programs for low-income people.

There could be more alternatives, too, if Congress would consider ideas such as allowing the Post Office to offer basic financial services, as is done in other countries, or giving poor people an advance on their earned income tax credit.

A bigger-picture solution, of course, would be to raise the minimum wage and rethink trickle-down economic policies that have decimated the middle class and widened the wealth gap to historic levels. But don’t hold your breath for that.

An additional excuse for legislative inaction this year is that Kentucky should wait to see what Congress and federal regulators do. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau has begun a belated crackdown on payday lending practices.

But only Congress can cap rates at the federal level, and there is little chance of that from the business-friendly Republican majority. Rep. Andy Barr, a Lexington Republican, has been a shameless ally of payday lenders and other financial services companies, which contributed more than $700,000 to his re-election campaign.

I wish the consumer protection advocates and religious leaders good luck Tuesday, but they will need to make many more trips to Frankfort. I just hope they follow the money and keep a good list of which politicians are helping payday lenders prey on Kentucky’s poor and vulnerable — a list they will share widely at election time.

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.

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.”

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New film marks centennial of Kentucky Governor’s Mansion

January 11, 2014


Gov. Steve Beshear and his wife, Jane, are shown on a video monitor in circa 1914 formal attire Jan. 5 during filming of a re-creation of the gala ball that opened the then-new Governor’s Mansion 100 years ago this month.  Members of Lexington Vintage Dance performed ballroom dances from the period. Photo by Tom Eblen 


FRANKFORT — The Governor’s Mansion turns a century old this month, and preservationists have organized a bipartisan celebration to raise money to help keep “the people’s house” in good shape for another hundred years or more.

Events begin this week with the premiere of a film about the mansion’s role as both a temporary home for governors and a venue for public hospitality and economic development. The film is narrated by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, a Kentucky native.

A symposium about the mansion is planned Jan. 22. There will be a reception March 5 after festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 march on Frankfort. And a Centennial Gala ball is planned June 7. For details and event tickets, go to: Governorsmansion.ky.gov.

The documentary, Kentucky Governor’s Mansion: A Century of Reflection, was produced by Lexington filmmaker Michael Breeding and paid for by Marion Forcht of Corbin and the Forcht Group. It premieres Jan. 15 at the Grand Theatre in Frankfort and Jan. 16 at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington.

140105GovsMansion0022“I wanted the film to tell the inside story of what has gone on in that mansion over the years,” Breeding said. “There’s a lot of history and stories, and part of it is a restoration story.”

The film opens with a re-enactment of the ball Gov. James McCreary gave Jan. 20, 1914 to open the mansion. That scene was filmed last Sunday evening with a cast of amateur actors in period attire. They included Gov. Steve Beshear, his wife, Jane, and members of Lexington Vintage Dance.

The Beshears seemed to have as much fun as everyone else, dressing up in vintage clothing to “party” in front of cameras. “I guess it’s OK to be seen having makeup put on now that I don’t have to run for re-election,” the second-term governor joked.

The film includes interviews with the Beshears and 30 other former governors, their family members and mansion staff. The full interviews will be preserved at the Kentucky History Center.

I sat in on part of the interview with Steve Collins and Marla Collins Webb, children of Martha Layne Collins, Kentucky’s first and only female governor, 1983-87.

“We all worked together as a family,” Steve Collins said, noting that his father, dentist Bill Collins, handled his duties as Kentucky’s “first man” with good humor and hosted “varmint” dinners for outdoorsmen. “They even roasted a raccoon one time,” Collins recalled.

One memorable event was a lavish but secretive dinner Gov. Collins gave in 1986 for Toyota executives when she was trying to get the assembly plant for Georgetown. The secret got out to everyone in Frankfort when the event concluded with a fireworks show.

140112GovMansion-Stock0022McCreary, for whom McCreary County is named, was the first of 24 governors who have lived in the mansion. He also was the last to use a horse and buggy. The film recalls that his successor, Augustus O. Stanley, preferred a newfangled automobile. But the mansion’s location on a steep bluff east of the Capitol proved problematic.

One Sunday morning as the Stanleys were getting ready for church, a staff member brought the sedan to the mansion’s back door and left it running unattended. Within minutes, the car rolled backward over the cliff.

Stanley is said to have walked out, looked down at what was left of his car and stoically said, “There’s another $1,500 gone to hell.”

Mansion construction began in 1912 after the General Assembly appropriated $75,000 to replace the previous governor’s home, built in downtown Frankfort in 1798. Five years ago, the old mansion got a $1.5 million, privately financed renovation and is now used as a state guest house.

Architect brothers C.C. and E.A. Weber of Fort Thomas designed the new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, mimicking the Petit Trianon villa at Versailles (France, not Kentucky). Clad in Bowling Green limestone, the 18,428-square-foot mansion came in $20,000 over budget, so landscaping was postponed for years to save money.

The mansion, decorated with a rotating collection of borrowed fine art, is one of only a few state governors’ homes regularly open for public tours. Because more than 12,000 people visit each year, the mansion gets a lot of wear and tear.

The first major renovation began in 1982 during Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.’s administration after a fire marshal declared the place unsafe. Phyllis George Brown raised private money for much of the work and elegant furnishings, as Glenna Fletcher did 25 years later when the mansion needed another updating.

Jane Beshear and David Buchta, state curator of historic properties, thought the centennial was a good opportunity to both celebrate the mansion and raise money for an endowment to help with upkeep. Their goal is to raise $1 million for the non-profit Kentucky Executive Mansions Foundation before the Beshears move out.

Mike Duncan and Terry McBrayer, Kentuckians who have held top jobs in the national Republican and Democratic parties, co-chair the Mansion Centennial Celebration Committee.

Among its fundraising efforts is the “county seats” project. Each county is being asked to give at least $1,000 toward 120 new ballroom dining chairs that are being made by student artisans at Berea College. So far, Buchta said, nearly half the state’s counties have agreed to contribute.

“This is so much more than the governor’s house,” said Ann Evans, the mansion’s executive director. “It has become an important tool for economic development, tourism and just making people feel welcome in Kentucky.”

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Fancy Farm shows McConnell is in for a fight, left and right

August 3, 2013

FANCY FARM — After a tough month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell found out Saturday that his life could be getting a lot tougher.

More than a year before McConnell faces re-election in November 2014, he shared the stage at the 133rd annual Fancy Farm Picnic with two viable, articulate challengers: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of Lexington, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Matt Bevin of Louisville.

It was their first face-to-face meeting, and probably their only one until next year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

Democratic activists were more numerous and enthusiastic than I have seen them at Fancy Farm in years. Bevin had only a small group of supporters here, but he has support among Tea Party activists.

130803FancyFarm-TE0208McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator, was his usual calm, assured self, arriving just before the program started and leaving the stage before Bevin and Ed Marksberry of Owensboro, another Democratic challenger, spoke.

McConnell’s appearance came after a tough month, including the embarrassment of having fellow Republican senators go around him to cut a deal with Democrats on confirmation of several Obama nominees to block changes in filibuster rules that McConnell has used to create gridlock in the Senate.

McConnell tried to frame his re-election as essential to stopping the “Obama agenda” — specifically health care reform and the administration’s crackdown on environmentally destructive coal-mining practices.

“We’re not just choosing who’s going to represent Kentucky in the Senate,” he said. “We’re going to decide who’s going to run the Senate.”

What he didn’t do was cite accomplishments, other than obstructing Obama and joining other Republicans in opposing an Army Corps of Engineers effort to restrict boating and fishing below Cumberland River dams.

130803FancyFarm-TE0230Bevin seized on McConnell’s lack of positive accomplishment, which could be a potent weapon in the hands of a smart Republican challenger.

“Mitch McConnell is known as mud-slinging Mitch, because the only thing he has to run on is destroying other people,” Bevin said. “There is nothing in his 30-year history of voting that he’s proud enough of to actually run on.”

Attacking him from the right, Bevin accused McConnell of being too timid in opposing Obama’s health-care law. “Be a man, stand up and put your money where your mouth is,” he taunted.

Bevin chided McConnell for arrogance for leaving with his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, before Bevin spoke. Bevin invited his wife, Glenna, and their nine children, including three four adopted from Ethiopia, to join him onstage.

Bevin didn’t give specifics about what kind of senator he would be. He also didn’t criticize Grimes, saying there would be plenty of time for that after he beats McConnell in the primary.

Grimes also was poised and confident. She joked about McConnell’s embarrassment on the filibuster showdown and his obstructionist tactics in what has been the least productive Congress in decades.

130803FancyFarm-TE0340“There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and Sen. McConnell is at the center of it,” she said. “As long as he remains in Washington, D.C., D.C. will stand for ‘dysfunctional capital.'”

Grimes slammed McConnell for votes against raising the minimum wage and legislation on two women’s issues: domestic violence and equal pay. She said she could do a better job of working across the aisle to get things done in Congress, which has record-low public approval ratings.

Both of these challengers showed they could do considerable damage to McConnell’s reputation. But can they beat him?

Bevins has some personal wealth and Tea Party support. But, unlike Rand Paul with his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul, Bevins doesn’t yet seem to have much grass-roots support or organization. He did little or nothing to solicit support at related GOP events this weekend in Western Kentucky.

Grimes has Democratic activists united, and she got strong endorsements on the Fancy Farm stage from Attorney General Jack Conway and Auditor Adam Edelen.

Given the party connections of her father, Jerry Lundergan, and national Democrats’ desire to unseat McConnell, she shouldn’t lack for money. But to win, Grimes will have to be more aggressive about framing the debate: she must make McConnell the issue, rather than allowing him to make Obama the issue.

McConnell’s record makes him vulnerable to a candidate who can exploit it.

One thing is clear: McConnell is less popular than ever. Whether either of these two challengers can take him out in a 15-month marathon in the national spotlight will be fascinating to watch.

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How about some real leadership rather than a phony ‘War on Coal’

July 13, 2013

Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.

President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.

Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth’s climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.

The nation’s 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.

Most Kentucky politicians’ reaction to Obama’s call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: “War on coal!” they screamed.

A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God’s will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky’s land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.

The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the “war on coal” theme is just the latest example.

But the current slump in Appalachia’s coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.

When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world’s economy moves on?

Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if “clean coal” technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.

Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?

Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation’s energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.

The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.

Simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources — much of it solar — despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.

Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.

The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can’t risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.

Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called “cap and trade” proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.

Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.


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

December 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Among the task force’s good recommendations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 2, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit shows a century of Kentucky political memorabilia

October 30, 2012

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish Kentucky governor had said more of this

January 8, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

I longed to hear something more like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At election time, we will miss Gatewood Galbraith

January 4, 2012

Gatewood Galbraith speaks at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Pablo Alcala

You could say a lot of things about Gatewood Galbraith, except that he was “just another politician.”

Galbraith, who died Wednesday at age 64, was a Kentucky original.

Everyone knew him as Gatewood — as with Elvis, the last name eventually became superfluous. In fact, I’ll bet if you showed most adult Kentuckians a tall, lanky silhouette of a man wearing a quirky, wide-brimmed hat, they would know immediately who it was.

Galbraith managed to become one of Kentucky’s best-known politicians without ever being elected to anything. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He ran for everything but the county line: attorney general, agriculture commissioner, congressman (twice) and governor (five times). Criticized as a “perennial candidate,” he responded that Kentucky has “perennial problems” that need solving.

The Lexington criminal defense lawyer began in politics as a Democrat, talked like a libertarian and finally ran as an independent. Galbraith was nothing if not independent. He criticized both the New Deal’s legacy and “greedy” corporations.

His best-selling 2004 autobiography was titled, The Last Free Man in America Meets the Synthetic Subversion. The book’s cover showed a smiling Galbraith holding a large machine gun, a bandoleer of bullets over each shoulder.

Perhaps the highlight of Galbraith’s political career came last fall, when he ran as an independent against incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, and the Republican nominee, state Senate President David Williams.

Galbraith got 9 percent of the vote, compared to Beshear’s 56 percent and Williams’ 28 percent. But he outpolled Williams in four counties: Bourbon, Woodford, his home county of Nicholas and Franklin, where the county seat is also the state capital. Not bad for the low-budget campaign of an anti-politician politician.

A friendly man and a tireless campaigner, Galbraith could be a funny and effective stump speaker. He personified an independent streak that Kentuckians have admired since the days of Daniel Boone. Freed from any illusion of electoral victory, Galbraith spoke the truth as he saw it to anyone who would listen.

His most famous stand was for legalizing hemp and marijuana, which earned him the nickname “Gateweed.” He was a strong supporter of gun-ownership rights.

He attracted many liberals’ votes in his last campaign by calling for mountaintop-removal coal mining to be outlawed. That put him in sharp contrast to the major party candidates, who embraced Kentucky’s powerful coal industry.

Still, while many people admired and agreed with Galbraith’s frank talk, they just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him. He looked and acted just a little too goofy to elect to public office, which, in Kentucky, is saying something.

“We need a credible Gatewood Galbraith,” conservative columnist John David Dyche observed during a media and politics panel at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce’s meeting last year in Louisville. I saw many in the audience nod in agreement.

After Galbraith delivered a withering takedown of Beshear at last summer’s Fancy Farm picnic, I wrote that his remarks were “over the top.”

Galbraith’s response, in a letter to the editor, was this: “In reply to Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen’s assertion that I ‘went over the top’ in my Fancy Farm speech, I note that those who never go ‘over the top’ always stay in the same rut.”

As was often the case, Galbraith had a good point.

Kentucky will be a poorer state now that he will no longer be around at election time.



Auditor Crit Luallen a tough act to follow

November 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing the gubernatorial slates at Fancy Farm

August 6, 2011

A booth at the Fancy Farm picnic takes a jab at Gov. Steve Beshear over allegations that his supporters solicited campaign contributions from state workers. Staffing the booth were Jason Hollon, left, Chase Hieneman and Andi Johnson. Photo by Tom Eblen

FANCY FARM – Kentucky politicians have learned the hard way that the best strategy for speakers at the Fancy Farm Picnic is to have a point, make it forcefully, zing your opponent with a memorable line – and don’t screw up.

At this annual church barbecue that begins Kentucky’s fall election season, the biggest sin of all is to say or do something that the other side can use like a club to beat you senseless.

So how did this year’s three gubernatorial slates do today?

Gov. Steve Beshear’s strategy was to stay above the fray. He has done a decent job managing the state through tough times, and he enjoys a huge lead in the polls over his Republican challenger, state Senate Pres. David Williams, and independent Gatewood Galbraith.

Neither Beshear nor his running mate, longtime Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, mentioned their challengers.

Just home from a week visiting Kentucky troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, Beshear wore a blue Kentucky National Guard shirt. Saying he wanted to talk about something more important than partisan politics, Beshear used almost all of his allotted eight minutes to praise the troops, which all but silenced the GOP jeering section.

It was a brilliant strategy – for two or three minutes. But as Beshear went on and on, introducing a soldier’s grandparents and asking the audience to applaud all veterans, even some of his supporters started rolling their eyes.

Perhaps sensing that Beshear had overplayed his hand, Galbraith delivered a withering response. Instead of talking about solutions for Kentucky’s problems, he said, “You go over there and try to hide behind the bodies of our young men and women in the military. I was highly offended” by the speech.

Galbraith said the only reason Beshear went to the Middle East was because he had failed to accompany President Barack Obama to Fort Campbell to congratulate the Navy SEALS who killed Osama bin Laden. “It’s like trying to buy a room full of flowers for your girl after you’ve been caught cheating,” he said.

Galbraith’s takedown was over-the-top, but he is always over-the-top. That is why the perennial candidate has never won an election and probably never will.

Otherwise, Galbraith courted Tea Party voters by calling for limited government, liberal voters by criticizing mountaintop-removal coal mining and moderate voters by blaming bitter partisanship for government gridlock. He said only an independent executive can bring both parties together.

It would have been a more powerful message coming from a different candidate. Still, Galbraith is likely to take a lot of conservative votes away from Williams, and even some away from pro-coal Beshear.

Because Williams is trailing so badly, he had little choice but to attack Beshear, despite limited ammunition. At the same time, though, Williams is trying to counter perhaps his biggest liability, summed up in his nickname, “The Bully from Burkesville.” Williams is a brilliant man, but his abrasive style and arrogant demeanor turn off Republicans as well as Democrats.

His choice of running mate, the former University of Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, was supposed to help his popularity. But Farmer has been a magnet for controversy, from his free-spending ways as Agriculture commissioner to his wife suing him for divorce during the campaign.

Farmer began his own Fancy Farm remarks by sounding like he was going to talk about his divorce. But the punch line was this: “David Williams is actually a pretty good guy!” That’s right: My running mate is not a jerk!

John Kemper, the Republican candidate for auditor, implied the inevitability of Williams’ loss by questioning how his own opponent, Democrat Adam Edelen, could be a truly independent auditor as Beshear’s former chief of staff.

Abramson delivered a solid speech, although he seemed out of his element and stumbled over some Western Kentucky geography.

Galbraith’s running mate, Dea Riley, said he was hoping to get a lot of support from women. “I’m even thinking Richie’s wife might vote for me,” she said.

Gov. Steve Beshear greets a supporter before the speaking began at Fancy Farm. He wore a Kentucky National Guard shirt after a week of visiting Kentucky troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. First Lady Jane Beshear is in the background. Photo by Tom Eblen

Coal’s ‘sanctuary’ state? Kentucky always has been

February 26, 2011

Kentucky’s legislators have shown unusual willingness this year to waste their time and taxpayers’ money.

Keep teenagers in school? Protect the elderly in nursing homes? Create a more fair and adequate tax system? Can’t get it done. But lawmakers have plenty of time to push legislation that belabors the obvious.

Republicans want schools to set aside time for children to say the pledge of allegiance, which, by law, they already do. Democrats want a constitutional amendment to protect the right to hunt and fish, which has never been threatened.

Most telling of all, two lawmakers want to proclaim the right of Kentucky’s coal industry to do as it pleases. Kentuckians know the coal industry has always done that, with plenty of help from our politicians.

Rep. Jim Gooch, a Providence Democrat and climate-change denier, proposed legislation that would exempt coal mining from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental regulations if the coal never leaves Kentucky.

Even more ridiculous is a Senate joint resolution calling for Kentucky to be a “sanctuary state” for the coal industry, freeing it from regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That proposal was made by Sen. Brandon Smith, a Hazard Republican who once managed a company the EPA went after for spilling 7,000 gallons of oil into a Laurel County creek.

Gooch and Smith say the coal industry should only be regulated by the state. But what they really want is no effective regulation at all. Too often, they amount to the same thing.

Consider this example from last week’s headlines: State regulators must submit a plan to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining by April 1 to raise the cash bonds coal companies must post to ensure that land is reclaimed after mining. In dozens of cases since 2007, companies shut down and left a mess that their bonds didn’t begin to cover. This time, as previously, state regulators are raising bonds only because federal regulators are forcing them to.

The coal industry is freaking out about federal regulation more than usual. That is because, for the first time since the Clinton and Carter administrations, the federal agencies charged with protecting the environment and regulating mine health and safety are being allowed and encouraged to do their jobs.

The proposed state legislation is especially embarrassing because Gooch and Smith are chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee Kentucky’s natural resources. But Steve Beshear, a usually sensible governor, managed to outdo them both in pandering to the coal industry. In his State of the Commonwealth address, Beshear colorfully called for less federal regulation of coal. “Get off our backs!” he shouted. “Get off our backs!”

I’m sure the coal barons loved Beshear’s performance. It reminded me of a previous generation of Southern governors, railing against the feds for insisting that their states acknowledge black citizens’ civil rights. It was Beshear’s George Wallace moment.

The truth is, we must mine and burn coal for years to come until sustainable energy technology is ready to replace it. But coal must be used responsibly, because we also need clean air, clean water and land that is capable of supporting life and an economy long after the coal is gone.

Not all coal companies are bad actors. But the industry as a whole has always cared more about big profits than protecting miners’ health or respecting the environment. Reform has never come without federal regulation, and the industry has usually fought it every step of the way.

Thankfully, the legislation proposed by Gooch and Smith won’t amount to much, except a waste of public time and money. States cannot just ignore federal law — that issue was settled pretty clearly by the Civil War.

The lawmakers say they want to “send a message” to Washington. They’re sending a message, all right. The message is that King Coal has the best Kentucky politicians money can buy, and the rest of us need the feds to protect us from them.

‘Watson’ lawmakers might pull us out of jeopardy

February 19, 2011

Since the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people, why can’t computers be politicians?

Watson for president! Better yet, let’s make clones of Watson – the computer IBM engineers built to clobber two human Jeopardy! champions last week – and put them to work in Congress and state legislatures.

Machines programmed to make decisions based on facts and logic would be an improvement over many of the human robots controlled by special interests who now run our government.

Big-money influence has always been a problem in politics. But the floodgates were opened last year when an activist Supreme Court majority expanded the legal idea that corporations are people. They overturned decades of campaign finance law and allowed corporations and unions to spend huge amounts of often-anonymous money to influence elections.

Computer politicians could help solve this problem, because they lack human greed. All computers really need is a cool room for their servers and a little maintenance. As long as they have a steady supply of electricity, they aren’t hungry for power.

Engineers could design computer politicians much the way they did Watson. They could fill their electronic brains with rich databases of facts and experience. Then they could write decision-making algorithms based on human logic and American ideals. You know, ideals that human politicians laud in speeches but often ignore in practice – fairness, justice, public good.

Consider how a computer politician could help with deficit-reduction. IBM named its Jeopardy! computer after the company’s founder, Thomas Watson. Let’s call our computer politician Webster, after that great 19th century statesman, Daniel Webster.

Webster could begin by analyzing how we got into this mess. His database would tell him that federal surpluses turned to huge deficits between 2000 and 2008 primarily because of massive tax cuts and more than $1 trillion borrowed to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Public debt was compounded by a deep recession caused largely by a housing bubble and irresponsible Wall Street speculation. With Wall Street now back to record profits, Watson might suggest a transactions tax on financial speculation to bring in billions to help balance the budget.

Many members of Congress act as if budgets can be balanced and debt eliminated by simply cutting discretionary, non-military spending. Free from human ideology, Webster would use facts and logic to conclude that any serious attempt to solve our financial problems will require ending the wars, curbing health care costs and raising taxes.

Webster’s database would show him that today’s income tax rates are the lowest in decades – lower than during the boom years of the 1990s, and far lower than during the economic boom that followed World War II. His electronic brain would dismiss the “taxed enough already” crowd, because facts show they are taxed less than in the past.

That is especially true of the wealthiest Americans. Because data show that assets held by the richest 5 percent of Americans have grown from $8 trillion to $40 trillion since 1985, Webster would logically conclude that they can afford to pay more in taxes. And that it would be in the best interest of the nation that created the environment that allowed them to prosper.

Webster’s database would show plenty of wasteful government spending to trim – much of it in the huge military budgets that some human members of Congress don’t want to touch.

I suspect Webster’s electronic brain would recognize the folly of slashing low-cost, high-value government programs such as public broadcasting, Teach for America and AmeriCorps.  He would conclude that cutting education is no way to build a more competitive economy. The logic of maintaining oil and coal subsidies while cutting investment in developing the energy technologies that must eventually replace fossil fuels just wouldn’t compute.

Decision-making algorithms based on American ideals would never allow essential aid to the poor, sick and elderly to be slashed, while preserving billions in wasteful military spending and subsidies for industries that don’t need them.

I’m sure some people will argue that machines can never replace human politicians, because even the best computers lack essential human traits, such as empathy. They have no heart.

I don’t see that as a big problem. Many of our current politicians don’t seem to have hearts, either.

New Louisville mayor wants Lexington partnership

January 2, 2011

Louisville Mayor-elect Greg Fischer, right, chats with people in mid-December at a holiday lunch for Louisville tourism officials. Photo by Tom Eblen

LOUISVILLE — Anyone who has lived in Kentucky very long knows Lexington and Louisville are separated by much more than 75 miles of Interstate 64 and a blue vs. red college sports rivalry.

The state’s two largest cities have always been insular in ways that no longer make economic sense. That is because success in a 21st-century global economy can be as much about collaboration as competition — and a lot more about regions than cities.

Kentucky’s business and civic leaders have been slowly coming around to this idea. But the election of new mayors with similar backgrounds, outlooks and goals could be a game-changer.

Lexington’s new mayor, Jim Gray, and Louisville’s new mayor, Greg Fischer, take office this week. They are both 50-something Democrats who begin their first executive jobs in government with experience as chief executives of creative, entrepreneurial and globally focused companies. If anybody gets the new economic reality that cities face, they should.

“I do think it’s a new day for both cities,” Fischer said. “Having mayors that understand that should be a plus.”

I know Gray, 57, pretty well. But I hadn’t met Fischer until last month, when I drove to Louisville to interview him at his no-frills campaign headquarters in a converted bourbon warehouse east of downtown.

Fischer, 52, was born and raised in Louisville. He graduated from Trinity High School before heading to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Fischer said he helped start or invest in about 20 companies, beginning at age 25 with SerVend, which makes automated ice and beverage dispensers still used in many restaurants.

Long active in the community, the married father of four hasn’t been in politics long. He lost the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2008 to Bruce Lunsford, who then failed to unseat Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. Fischer succeeds Louisville’s longest-serving mayor, Jerry Abramson, who stepped down to become Gov. Steve Beshear’s re-election running mate.

Fischer said he first met Gray, the CEO of his family’s construction company, about four years ago. Fischer wanted to pick his brain on behalf of a company he partially owns, Dant Clayton Corp., which builds sports stadiums.

“Little did we know four years ago that we would be sitting across the table in different capacities now,” Fischer said. “I enjoy Jim’s personality, his optimism, his team-building approach. He’s got good energy to him.”

Fischer said he hopes to have a regular dialogue with Gray. “We have been texting back and forth, but haven’t had substantive conversations yet,” he said.

Fischer’s ideas and philosophy sound strikingly similar to Gray’s.

Like Gray, Fischer’s top priority is creating jobs. While there have been some encouraging announcements recently by major employers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Electric, Louisville has lost more than 24,000 jobs in the past decade, mainly in manufacturing.

Fischer said he plans to focus on industry sectors in which Louisville is already strong, such as transportation logistics and health care companies that focus on long-term and aging care. Partnering with Lexington and other nearby cities also will be a priority.

The two cities’ economies tend to complement rather than compete with each other. And there are many things they share, such as a central location and auto manufacturing and supply industries.

Those rival sports teams are attached to major research universities that could play a bigger role in developing long-term knowledge jobs in Kentucky, Fischer noted. “People talk about the rivalry, but I see that as an advantage, because we’re always talking to each other,” he said.

“It makes all the sense in the world for Louisville and Lexington — Frankfort’s obviously there, and maybe Elizabethtown — to work together as a region to be viewed as relevant on an international scale,” he said. “We’ve got to be thinking globally now when we think about competition. We’ve got to be able to overcome any parochial interests or baggage and look forward.”

The two cities also must work with Northern Kentucky to convince the rural-dominated General Assembly that what is good for urban areas is good for the entire state, because they produce most of Kentucky’s jobs and taxes.

Fischer would like to see legislation allowing local-option sales taxes to allow Kentucky cities to be more competitive with similar-sized cities in other states. But just as important is comprehensive state tax reform that will encourage businesses to set up shop here rather than elsewhere. “Right now,” he said, “our tax code is not our friend.”

As Louisville and Lexington develop long-term strategic plans, they should pay attention to how those complement each other. “Then let’s create a joint plan between our cities,” he said.

“We are in a natural position to be more allies than what we are,” Fischer said of Louisville and Lexington. “We’re just an hour away. If we were living in a large metropolitan area, that would be the average commute, or less, for a lot of people.”

How WEG could affect Lexington, Kentucky politics

September 19, 2010

Some of the biggest winners and losers to come out of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games won’t be riding horses.

High on the list are Mayor Jim Newberry, Vice Mayor Jim Gray and Gov. Steve Beshear. Whether each ends up as a winner or loser could depend a lot on how well the Games go.

The 16-day competition at the Kentucky Horse Park comes at a tricky time for Gray, who is challenging Newberry for re-election. The election is Nov. 2, only 44 days from now and 23 days after the Games end.

Gray has an uphill battle to unseat Newberry, a competent if not always inspiring mayor. Newberry isn’t nearly as vulnerable as Teresa Isaac was four years ago when he ousted her.

Ordinarily, Gray and Newberry would be in full campaign mode by now, even though both tend to come off as petulant and whiney when they attack each other. The contest so far has been a low-key affair, with Gray having neighborhood meetings and Newberry cutting ribbons.

As the Games draw near, both candidates seem restrained. After all, it isn’t polite to fight in front of company, and Lexingtonians are nothing if not polite.

Expect to see a lot of Newberry at the Games and the related downtown festivities. If all goes well, he can trumpet them as the capstone to four years of progress. But if things go badly, the Games could blow up in Newberry’s face.

What could go wrong? Lots. Having covered two Olympics and many other big events, I have observed that the secret to success is smooth execution of basic logistics. The devil is always in the details.

Traffic, parking, shuttles and other conveniences for spectators, participants and the media will shape perceptions of the Games. If people are able to get in, out and about the Horse Park and the downtown entertainment venues with relative ease, and at a price they consider fair, it will go a long way toward creating good buzz about the Games.

It doesn’t help that the biggest logistical test will come the first night, when tens of thousands of people, most of whom have paid big money for tickets, converge on the Horse Park for opening ceremonies. LexTran and hotel shuttles should ease congestion if they run smoothly, but this is a city of drivers who freak out at the slightest traffic jam.

If all goes well, great. If not, the problems had better be fixed quickly or there will be hell to pay. This is especially true as it relates to visiting journalists. If they hear spectators complaining, and if bungled logistics make it hard for them to do their jobs, they won’t hesitate to tell the world about it.

While Newberry has the most to gain or lose politically from the Games, the governor also has a lot at stake. Beshear has been a big booster, as has his wife, Jane, an avid horsewoman.

Responding to concerns that spectators would have to walk a half-mile or more from their $20 parking spaces at Spy Coast Farm to the Horse Park venues, the governor’s office last week took the lead in organizing a free shuttle service to be operated by a church group.

Beshear has often stepped up to help the Games. Perhaps the most notable example was in January 2008 when he shifted nearly $30 million in state appropriations to fund the Horse Park’s outdoor stadium and other Games-related improvements that had languished in budget limbo for a year.

That money originally was intended for parks projects throughout the state, but “Kentucky’s reputation is on the line” with the Games’ success, Beshear said. About half of that money was to have gone for improvements at Dale Hollow State Park, which is in Senate President David Williams’ district.

Williams was not amused. Since then, he has become the Republicans’ most promising candidate for governor next year, when Beshear, a Democrat, faces re-election.

Don’t be surprised to hear Williams bring up the subject if the Games go badly — or even if they go well. Kentucky politicians have always been able to whip up rural voters by complaining that cities get too many of the goodies.

So let the Games begin. If there is anything Kentuckians love as much as horses, it is politics.

‘7 Habits’ work in life, business — why not politics?

August 11, 2010

Before I left for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, I stopped by the public library to borrow some audio books for the five-hour drive to Graves County and the five-hour drive back.

One was leadership consultant Stephen Covey lecturing on his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey has sold millions of copies of his book, and some of America’s most successful executives have said those “habits” transformed their lives and companies.

As I drove down the Western Kentucky Parkway listening to Covey, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was that the success habits he recommends for people and organizations are just common sense. The second was that American politics violates every one of them.

I would soon hear ample evidence of that, both from the politicians who spoke at the annual church picnic that kicks off Kentucky’s fall campaign season and from the thousands of partisans who cheered and jeered them.

This could help explain why, rather than being “highly effective,” government has become increasingly dysfunctional. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate, where the main warriors at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul — hope to serve.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating piece about the Senate by journalist George Packer. The article, “The Empty Chamber,” described how the legislative body that the Founding Fathers intended as a place for reasoned debate has become hobbled by the destructive behavior of Republicans and Democrats alike. Many senators seem more concerned with money, power and petty politics than with governing.

Consider Covey’s seven recommended habits in the context of today’s political environment:

■ Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to react, Covey says. Politicians are the most reactive people on the planet, afraid to take a stand or make a tough decision unless public opinion, often in response to a crisis, forces them to. As a result, many complex problems just keep getting bigger.

■ Begin with the end in mind. Covey asks his audience to imagine what they would like others to say about them when they die. Given the large egos of many politicians, you would think they would want something better than “he/she was a money-grubbing tool of corporate interests.”

■ Put first things first. Peace, prosperity and justice, anyone?

■ Think “win-win.” This is a big one. In today’s political environment, even an honest change of mind is labeled “flip- flopping” or “waffling.” Compromise is called weakness. America is pretty evenly split between red and blue — in the case of the 2000 presidential election, remarkably so. Yet politics is increasingly a zero-sum game. In the Senate, whichever party is out of power wages a war of obstruction against the party in power. They simply fight to regain control, at which point the other party will do the same to them.

■ Seek to understand, then to be understood. What politician today seeks to understand the other party’s concerns? After all, that might change a mind, lead to compromise or accidently create a “win-win.”

■ Synergize. “To put it simply, synergy means ‘two heads are better than one,'” Covey says. Again, this is an alien concept in politics. Many would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than admit that someone in the other party has a good idea.

■ Sharpen the saw. This is not the same as sharpening the knife so you can stick it in your opponent’s back. Covey is talking about expanding your mind through reading, study and social interaction. In The New Yorker, Packer pointed out that bitter partisanship in the Senate has increased as social interaction between Democrats and Republicans has decreased. It is easier to call the person across the aisle Satan’s henchman if you never play golf together or share a meal.

But we can’t just blame the politicians. They often are responding to voters who marinate their minds in segments of the media that have discovered there are big profits to be made by dishing up distortion, propaganda and extremism.

America would be more successful if politicians — and the voters who elect them — applied Covey’s seven habits, which have been so successful in business and personal development, to politics and governance.

“We already know,” Covey says as I roll down the highway toward Fancy Farm, “that what is common sense is not common practice.”