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Plenty of ways Kentucky can pull itself up

COVINGTON — I was on the road at daybreak Thursday, driving to another one of those conferences where Kentuckians talk about how to solve our many problems.

We seem to have a lot of these conferences, although this one was better than most. Perhaps that's because it was hosted by the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center, a unique resource that provides leaders with good data to help make decisions.

As I drove up Interstate 75, one radio headline after another punctuated the nation's deepening economic crisis, and I thought about how that would frame the day's discussions.

It made me think of a former colleague's story about interviewing an old man in rural Georgia and asking him what it was like to live through the Great Depression. "We didn't notice the Depression much," he told her, "because it came right in the middle of hard times."

This conference dealt with all of the usual issues, and the data didn't paint a flattering portrait of Kentucky: We're too fat and too sick. We smoke more and go to school less than people in almost any other state. More than one-third of our babies are born to unmarried women, most of whom are poor and likely to stay that way. We think destroying our land is good economic development. The gap between our rich and poor is growing faster than in all but five other states. At the current rate of growth, our per-capita income won't catch up with the rest of the country's for 150 years.

Kentucky has rarely had the ability to throw a lot of money at its problems, and if the buzz I'm hearing is true, we'll have even less when state officials announce their latest tax revenue projections Friday.

So what do we do? Hunker down and wait for better times? Or do we use this crisis as an opportunity to make tough choices and take bold action?

It seems nothing focuses thinking like a crisis, and I was intrigued by some of the ideas I heard Thursday. Although these ideas would require a lot of political will, they wouldn't cost a lot of money. In fact, many of them would save money in the long run, while making life in Kentucky much better. Among the ideas:

■ Follow the example of Ohio and other states and pass tough laws to rein in businesses such as payday lenders, rent-to-own merchants and check-cashers that prey on Kentucky's poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

■ Enact laws and tax policies that promote the creation and growth of "micro-enterprises" — small businesses that allow families to support themselves and local economies.

■ Follow the lead of 34 other states and create a state earned-income tax credit for poor Kentuckians, similar to the federal tax credit in effect since the 1960s.

"What we know at the federal level is that it's the most effective anti-poverty strategy out there to raise low-income folks to middle class and keep them there," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. "It is a very minimal cost to the state. ... Ninety percent of those refunds are spent in the communities where those people work and live."

■ Raise the age for compulsory school attendance from 16 to 18. Kentucky has one of the nation's highest percentages of people age 16-18 who are neither in school nor working. "If you're 16 years old and not in school and not working, you're lost," Brooks said.

■ Put fewer non-violent criminals in prison, especially young adult offenders. Brooks noted that it costs $4,000 a year to educate a teenager in Kentucky, and $60,000 a year to keep one in prison.

■ Follow the example of Lexington and other cities and enact a statewide ban against smoking in public places. It would send a bold message throughout Kentucky — and around the world. More than that, it would make Kentuckians healthier and save a fortune in future medical costs, said Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley, a cardiologist from Glasgow.

■ Give Kentucky high school graduates a passport along with a diploma, encouraging them to travel and learn more about the world, said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp.

And there were many more ideas that legislators should consider when they return to Frankfort in January, regardless of the economic outlook.

"There isn't one answer," Kimel said. "There are many, many answers. It requires a commitment to relentless innovation and relentless experimentation," because we never know which ideas and strategies will work.

There's never a better time to act than now.