We often lament here the lack of political leadership in preparing Appalachia for a low-coal future, so it was refreshing to read an op-ed from Kentucky state Rep. Leslie Combs that called for less fighting over coal and more support for a more robust Appalachian economy. "We need to be talking about the new reality of less mining because we've known this day was coming," she wrote. Combs, along with another Eastern Kentucky coalfield legislator, pre-filed a bill that would return all coal severance taxes back to the counties where the coal was mined (currently they get less than half). It's a bill that is unlikely to pass, as Combs admits, but if it's a catalyst to get the legislature talking about Eastern Kentucky's economic development, then that's a start.
In response to Rep. Combs' op-ed, the Herald-Leader wrote its own editorial, praising Combs for "her eagerness to lead on this challenge," and stating that "Combs' bottom line — 'focus less on placing blame and more on how coal-mining regions can move forward' — is unassailable." But it also pushes some of her ideas farther: "We could also support returning more of the severance tax to coal counties, but only if there is a smart plan based on sound economics and governance that would be democratic, transparent and accountable with quantifiable measures of success and failure."
Comprehensive, participatory strategic planning is absolutely crucial to Appalachia's transition. How many news stories have been written about a huge new investment into a project that fails to fulfill its promises of economic development? Too often these projects have been planned and implemented in a vacuum, with little regard for what's really needed, what's already there, or how the community feels about it.
The Herald-Leader also challenges Combs' proposal to attempt to bring in outside businesses with tax breaks. This is a tactic that has been tried in the past, at high costs to local governments and often little long-term success. Says the editorial,
Let's not lose sight of our history. Giving away the store in exchange for jobs replicates the coal industry model. The profits from the labor of Eastern Kentuckians flowed to faraway cities and built great fortunes elsewhere, while the coal-rich places sunk into poverty.
Instead of repeating that flawed model — and this is a challenge statewide — let's provide incentives and support for businesses and employers who will generate jobs and wealth that stay here.
Imagine if our state and local governments supported our small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs with the same zeal with which they court out-of-state industries! It's an idea that may be (finally!) catching on – Kentucky recently created an Office of Entrepreneurship in the Cabinet for Economic Development, and multiple conferences exploring locally-based economic development have been popping up all over the region. It's a start.
Economic planning and entrepreneurship are both pieces of the puzzle of Appalachia's diversification, a puzzle that can be supported with coal severance funds. But those funds are rapidly dwindling. As we have often said, and as the Herald-Leader points out, a permanent trust fund for coal severance dollars would go a long way to ensuring funding for the road ahead well into the future. Rep. Combs seems willing to have the conversation about where that road is headed and how we might get there, but it will take more than one leader to make the big changes we need in Appalachia.
Photo of downtown Harlan by Flickr user Alan Creech, used under Creative Commons license.