Gatewood Galbraith, one of Kentucky's most colorful politicians, died Wednesday, just hours before Gov. Steve Beshear delivered his fifth State of the Commonwealth Address.
Many people didn't take Galbraith or his politics very seriously, but they liked him anyway. He was a genuinely nice guy who could poke fun at opponents without leaving scars. Most of all, Kentuckians admired his willingness to point out obvious truths despite the political cost.
As I watched Beshear speak, I could not imagine Galbraith standing there before the General Assembly. There were good reasons he lost five races for governor.
Beshear's speech wasn't bad. He brought up some tough issues, and he avoided the "get off our backs" nonsense from last year that made him look like a coal-industry puppet.
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Having just won re-election, Beshear finally admitted the need for state tax reform. Not that he has proposed any real action before the end of the year, when most legislators stand for re-election. But it was a start. Maybe.
Still, with Galbraith on my mind that day, I longed to hear more honesty, more leadership and more political courage from a governor who will not have to face voters again — and who might want a political legacy beyond "caretaker."
I longed to hear something more like this:
Ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly, I don't need to tell you that Kentucky has big problems. That has long been obvious to you, me and every citizen of the commonwealth. The people sent us to Frankfort to solve these problems, not to keeping ignoring them while we take care of our friends and feather our own nests.
This is the time for bold action. We must be leaders, and leadership sometimes means taking people where they don't want to go.
For more than a decade, state government has spent more than it takes in. We masked the problem for a while with economic growth and a lot of debt. More recently, we masked it with $3 billion in federal stimulus money.
Most of you claim not to like President Barack Obama. I've done my best to avoid him, too. But despite what his critics say, the president's economic stimulus kept thousands of Kentuckians working and saved our state budget. Now that money is gone, and we must face up to our responsibilities.
We need significant long-term investments to make Kentucky's citizens more healthy, educated and able to compete in a 21st century economy. That will take money.
Circumstances may force us to keep cutting the budget for a while, but no state or business ever cut its way to prosperity. We must spend the money we have more wisely. As political leaders, we must fight waste, fraud and abuse — and stop being some of the worst perpetrators of it.
Expanded gambling won't solve Kentucky's problems any more than the lottery did. We must increase state revenues in other ways. That's right, folks, we must raise taxes.
Forget those fairy tales about how everything will be fine if we just let business do as it pleases and all but abolish government. I know, some voters love that rhetoric. But as important as the private sector is, it won't solve all of our problems. That kind of thinking is a big reason why our nation is in this mess — the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the middle class disappearing.
Folks, what Kentucky needs is real tax reform. We need a state tax system that is fair and produces revenue that grows with the economy and Kentucky's needs. That means wealthier people should pay more. Powerful interests must lose many of their tax breaks.
Sure, our tax system must remain "competitive" where business is concerned. But that can't mean giving business a free ride at the expense of working people. States that do that hide a lot of poverty and misery beneath their "pro-business" gloss.
You and I know this won't be easy. It will mean facing up to powerful people and companies that have funded our campaigns. And it will mean angering voters who want something for nothing. But it's the right thing to do.