Trying to help Eastern Ky. is now a required plank for any platform

02/18/2014 11:21 AM

Running a statewide campaign usually means going where the most voters are. In Kentucky these days, it means going where the most jobs are disappearing.

In the last month, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes chose Prestonsburg to make her first policy speech, which was about jobs and economic development. Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has held several events in Eastern Kentucky to blast President Barack Obama’s administration over coal policy. And on Monday, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, who is looking at running in the 2015 Republican primary for governor, unveiled the most detailed plan yet for specific ways to diversify and help the region’s economy.

And all this came after Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Congressman Hal Rogers of Somerset held a conference in December aimed at brainstorming other strategies like extending high-speed broadband to the region and widening the Mountain Parkway.

Eastern Kentucky’s long struggle with poverty and lack of job opportunities has been well documented, most recently by the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Bill Estep and John Cheves in their series revisiting the issues spotlighted in Henry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.”

Of the 21 counties in the southeast corner the state that are east of I-75, all but one (Johnson) had double-digit unemployment rates as of December, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics .

Comer, on Monday, unveiled a series of proposals for the region at an event at the Knott County Sportsplex outside Hindman. His announcement included details on pilot projects for growing hemp and creating a new brand for Eastern Kentucky-produced products: “Appalachia Proud — Mountains of Potential.”

Long term, he also called for ending the practice of sending half of all coal severance tax money to the state’s general fund. Instead, he said 100 percent should go back to the counties where coal is extracted or through which coal is transported. That, however, would require approval of the General Assembly and governor.

Democratic state Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson joined Comer for the announcement. She introduced a partnership between Comer’s Ag Department and the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation to build an elk and nature tourist destination on 100 acres of reclaimed mine land. The project will rely on private fundraising.

Whether or not Comer’s proposals are the foundation for a platform for a run for governor, Webb said what he’s doing is needed for a region that needs more economic diversification as the coal industry changes and shrinks.

Comer clearly didn’t choose the venue in Knott County for political reasons — at least concerning next year’s GOP primary for governor. Only 682 registered Republicans live in that county compared to more than 10,500 Democrats.

But his ideas were significant enough to attract the support of both Republican U.S. Senators, McConnell and Rand Paul. Paul said specific plans like Comers and like his pitch for “economic freedom zones” show Kentuckians of all registration that GOP leaders “care about trying to fix problems with high unemployment.”

Of the three Republican officials, McConnell is next up to face voters in this year’s election.

McConnell has consistently railed against President Barack Obama administration’s environmental policies, which he has dubbed a “war on coal.” And he has signed on as a cosponsor to Paul’s bill to create economic freedom zones, in which counties with 10 percent unemployment can get their federal tax burdens reduced in order to spur development.

But McConnell wouldn’t say whether he has more of his own ideas up his sleeve for the region.

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