T.J. Litafik: End the blame game, E. Ky. needs public investment

January 6, 2014 

There are many arguments and differences of opinion as to what Eastern Kentucky's future should be. A healthy debate is productive and issues should be debated and carefully weighed.

However, real progress will come only through compromise and cooperation, not by digging into rigidly ideological positions and by espousing continuous empty rhetoric.

This means that the path forward isn't going to come about merely by groups on the left routinely condemning coal mining or by groups on the right regularly blaming everything on President Barack Obama.

While Eastern Kentucky's problems are singular in many ways, in some instances, they are not so different from the challenges faced in all corners of America.

The largest single roadblock to a better quality of life in these glorious mountains has been the lack of a sustainable middle class — something that is surely not unique to our region.

In large part, the only middle class we've ever known was because of the high-paying jobs created by the coal industry. As we all know, coal is victim to a vicious cycle of boom and bust — and right now the Central Appalachian coal basin is in a bust period.

Boom periods of the coal economy have lulled us into the devilish notion that times would always be that good. If we didn't before, now we know better than that and we can no longer just slide by hoping for another big boom that may never come again.

The Shaping Our Appalachian Region summit was an important step toward bringing together the federal, state and local governments along with the community and business leaders who can make all the difference in securing our region's future.

Coordination and collaboration are essential components to making sure that what comes out of SOAR is more than just another report or study to sit on a shelf and collect dust.

More than anything else, Eastern Kentucky needs significant investment in infrastructure and education if we are to attract the kind of diversified economic development that can be truly transformative for our region.

This means two things must absolutely happen:

■ The state legislature must return a greater percentage of the state coal-severance tax to the coal counties for legitimate development purposes.

■ And the U.S. Congress must act to free up a portion of Abandoned Mine Lands monies for investment in Appalachia.

Without adequate funding to make the kind of investments that are crucial, it is hard to see how much more than merely nominal progress can occur. This means that our elected representatives in Washington and Frankfort have to get to work and get the job done. Playing the blame game, spinning public relations fluff and engaging in over-garnished window dressing are merely useless tools to score cheap political points.

Eastern Kentucky needs action and money, and not a moment too soon.

Thomas J. (T. J.) Litafik is senior advisor to the Pike County judge-executive.

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