By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
If you want to be governor of Kentucky, especially a Democratic governor, you must look to the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Despite changes to the coal industry, the economic crisis in eastern Kentucky and the Republican trend in Kentucky, the previous sentence remains true. Proof of that was on display Monday at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit in Pikeville.
Prospective Democratic gubernatorial candidates Attorney General Jack Conway, Auditor Adam Edelen and former Auditor Crit Luallen were all there.
Taking part in the program were other Democrats who might have gubernatorial aspirations as well: House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Majority Leader Rocky Adkins, as well as Pike County state Rep. Leslie Combs, who has been mentioned as a possible ticket mate for a gubernatorial slate.
Even Republican Hal Heiner, the former Metro Councilman from Louisville, was working the crowd.
None admitted to campaigning. They were there to show support for the region.
“I’m here to learn,” Heiner said. He said he had ideas about how to address the region’s problems, “but I need to develop a depth of knowledge on what’s needed for the future.”
The candidates must have sensed the excitement about talk of utilizing coal severance taxes to create a regional economic development fund. The issue is a testy one in southeastern Kentucky because half of those taxes remain in Frankfort.
The portion going back to the coal fields has created dependency. Local governments use the money not for long-term economic development but for operational costs. It’s part of the political lifeblood in the region.
“All the elected Frankfort representatives from those counties have come to use it for projects they can send back home,” said Danny Briscoe, a former Democratic Party of Kentucky Chairman who has managed several races for county officials and state representatives from the area.
“And the local officials have come to rely on that money,” Briscoe said.
The idea of directing more of the money back to the region was the hot topic at the SOAR Summit, but Gov. Steve Beshear tamped down some of the enthusiasm when he said the “strapped” state budget won’t allow more coal severance money to go back any time soon.
But Beshear is in his final term and those prospective candidates who attended Monday’s all-day meeting may find the idea a test for support in 2015.
“I would think so,” said Rep. Tim Couch, R-Hyden, when asked if the idea could become a litmus test for support in the area. “It has to be a major issue. Something’s going to have to be done about the unemployment problems.”
Briscoe said it will be an issue for candidates from either party but especially important for Democrats.
“Breathitt, Letcher, Perry, Floyd and Pike counties are all huge Democratic counties,” Briscoe said. “A candidate can win the Fifth (Congressional) District if he wins those counties big. But he can’t do it if he’s going to be against coal severance taxes for those counties.”
The severance funds are supposed to go to economic development — and some does in the form of such things as water and sewer lines. But a lot is used for local governments’ operational needs and sometimes for special projects for which a state lawmaker can claim credit.
Couch agrees that’s a problem, one he’s engaged in by helping secure earmarked severance funds for things like fire trucks and operational needs. It will be hard to wean local communities from such uses of the money, but long-term, he said, more of the taxes must be directed toward economic development.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ cnhifrankfort.