FRANKFORT – Last week, I was proud to take part in the latest Shaping Our Appalachian Region conference, which in its brief history has become the ideal time to reflect on the progress we have made and the plans we have to build on that success going forward.
In my remarks, I noted that the General Assembly took several steps this year to help move this process along. That includes modifying the coal severance-tax formula to better help counties cope with the tax’s steep decline over the past five years; adding millions of dollars more to our coal-county scholarships, which help our college students finish their four-year degree close to home; and continuing the expansion of the Mountain Parkway.
There is still much the state can and should do, however. I am advocating for returning all coal severance dollars to the counties that generate them, and I still believe we need a public four-year university here in the mountains. I also am doing all I can to lay the groundwork for an interstate-quality road that would link us to I-64 in Beckley, W.Va. We need a better route to the east, and the people of our neighboring state are ready to join us and see how we can make this possible.
The value of each of these moves is obvious. The coal counties have shown over the decades they are the best stewards of the money they generate, and with state revenues growing and local budgets reeling, now is the ideal time to make this transition. A four-year public university and improved transportation system, meanwhile, will give us the bedrock tools we and future generations need to strengthen our economy.
Two days after the SOAR conference, I built on that message during a speech I gave to Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI), that region’s Chamber of Commerce. There, I reminded them of the importance of doing more as a state to bridge the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Kentucky cannot truly succeed if broad areas are being left behind.
Simply put, we have to find a way to extend the overall success we’re seeing as a state. Over the last two years, for example, Site Selection magazine said Kentucky had more major job announcements than any other state on a per-person basis. Our exports are growing at a time when the national export rate is declining by 7 percent, and state budget numbers show we are on track to the end the fiscal year this month with substantially more money than economists thought we would have when the two-year budget was adopted in 2014.
As we look for ways to help all regions succeed, I told the GLI audience that we need to focus on those areas where there is agreement and not division. That especially includes such proposals as right-to-work, which I call right-to-work-for-less because it is designed only to weaken labor.
Our four auto assembly plants are a perfect example showing we do not need this. Ford’s and GM’s are unionized while Toyota’s plant, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in Kentucky last week, is not. These companies would not have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their local operations over the past two years if right-to-work was a concern. On top of that, Site Selection says Kentucky has the third-best business climate among the states. Those who think the lack of right-to-work is holding back our statewide job market have nothing to back up their claims.
SOAR and GLI may not have any direct connection to one another, but they ultimately have the same goal: To make Kentucky an even better place to live. Our goal going forward is to harness the collective energies of these and other regional organizations so that we find solutions that benefit all of us and not just some of us. To keep Kentucky moving ahead, we cannot afford to leave any area behind.
If you have any thoughts about this, please let me know. You can always email me at [email protected], or you can leave a message for me or any legislator at 800-372-7181.
Rep. Greg Stumbo serves as speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.