In late March, Gov. Steve Beshear will take up the complex, politically fraught task of designating where federal workforce training dollars will flow in Kentucky.
A federal law passed last summer gives him the job of making the first significant change in those designations since they were created in 1998.
Few things are as political as deciding where federal money will flow. But in making this decision, Beshear, in his final year as governor, should think only about how to create good jobs in Kentucky and prepare Kentuckians for them.
As Beshear knows — and virtually every politician says daily — a well-trained workforce is central to economic development. That's why it is so important to make the best possible use of the almost $50 million in federal workforce-training money that comes to Kentucky annually.
He will set the tone to decide whether decisions about federal workforce spending will be driven by local political interests or a real-world understanding of how to connect businesses with the skilled workers they need.
Under the current federal law, the Area Development Districts became, with little discussion, the conduit in most of the state. But today, ADD boundaries, even county lines don't define economic opportunity.
For example, a recent study for the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce looked at commuting patterns and television market areas to define nine economic regions; Louisville and Lexington have combined to form BEAM to promote advanced manufacturing in the corridor that unites the two cities; SOAR is looking at new economic opportunities in Eastern Kentucky defined more by access to broadband than to highways.
These point to an economy organized by cultural and information patterns, as well as political boundaries.
The governor will be advised by the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board, which has been working for months on defining new areas and the rules under which their boards will operate, and is about to launch a series of meetings to hear from others. Among those providing input, no doubt, will be local officials in Lexington and Bowling Green who are aggressively trying to gain control of workforce training dollars now controlled by the ADDs.
In both situations there are allegations that the money has served more to sustain and enhance the ADD than to create new economic opportunities. For the Bluegrass ADD here in Central Kentucky those charges are supported by the scorching report issued by state Auditor Adam Edelen early last year, which found conflicts of interest, self-dealing and mismanagement in its management of workforce funds.
This is a disgrace, and one that is less likely to be repeated. When the new law goes into effect July 1, the local boards in the areas the governor defines will have to conduct a competitive bidding process for any services — including fiscal management and job training — before committing the funds. That will provide new and welcome accountability.
But, in the end, it will fall to Beshear to decide whether the local and regional workforce areas are defined by political power structures of the past or the realities of Kentucky's economy today and the potential for its future growth.