Education, economic development, energy and environment, health care, competitiveness, tax policy. These are the focus issues of Commerce Lexington's 2015 local, state and national public policy agenda.
Tom Martin's conversation with the chamber's public policy committee chair Carla Blanton deals mostly with matters before the 2015 session of the Kentucky General Assembly. You can study the entire agenda in detail at Commercelexington.com/policy/statements.
Tom Martin: Education is high on this year's agenda. What is the legislature being asked to consider?
Carla Blanton: We're asking for the continuation of some things that we believe are important such as the Common Core state standards which help measure students' progress, but also help ensure that the education that they get in the classroom translates into real world experience and that they're able to apply those principles and anything that they're learning in the classroom.
Another very important issue is workforce development and workforce training. And we have an affiliated group, the Business and Education Network, and they're undertaking a study to look at the workforce needs that businesses in Central Kentucky have: where are the gaps, where could there be more collaboration and training?
Martin: One item rings familiar as it also appears on the state chamber's list of priorities: "public/private partnerships." What sort of legislation is needed?
Blanton: Obviously, the world has changed. The money is not there for state government like it used to be, so we have to think about how we can do things differently, creative ways that we can stretch our dollars and maximize the taxpayer dollar and impact. Public/private partnerships allow local and state governments to creatively work with private companies to build or manage various things that had previously been under the government's purview. It could be a water treatment plant; it could be helping build a bridge.
The University of Kentucky is a great example of doing that with the dorm building that they have going on, something that could not have been undertaken on that scale so quickly had they not brought in a private partner to help them.
We want to make sure that it's an option for local and state governments to enter into a private partnership to get something built that maybe couldn't have otherwise been built, and we want to make sure that there's accountability and transparency so people know that their money is being spent wisely.
Martin: High-tech companies here in Central Kentucky have been calling for high-speed access to the Internet. How should telecommunications law be addressed to make that happen?
Blanton: It's commonly come to be known as the "AT&T Bill," but basically it would give companies like AT&T flexibility, particularly in urban areas where there is a lot of competition. Rather than having to continue to invest in old technology that fewer and fewer people have, land lines for example, that they would be able to use that investment money for broadband.
Lexington's Internet service ranks 38th in Kentucky — 38th out of 96 cities where Internet is available in terms of speed. So it's something that Commerce Lexington and the mayor's office are asked about every day.
Martin: The chamber supports congressional efforts to process surface mining permits held up by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Blanton: This refers to 40 surface mining permits that are being held up by the EPA. The state is also trying to get those through the process. We believe there's a legal process that's been set in place. These companies have followed that permitting process and they're currently being help up at the EPA.
Martin: There's also a list of seven initiatives that favor alternative energy sources. Can you tell us a little bit about those?
Blanton: We recognize that as federal standards change and also as the coal economy does continue to change, that diversification is always a good thing whether it's in your retirement portfolio or your energy portfolio. We want to make sure that we have those options in our toolbox.
So it's things like clean coal technology and natural gas. Kentucky is not well-suited to some of the other alternative energy sources; solar and wind power are not well-suited to our geography.
In addition, Kentucky has a ban on nuclear. We support lifting of that ban so that we can make sure that we have a diverse portfolio.
Martin: Does the Lexington chamber support its state counterpart in calling for a statewide ban on smoking in public places?
Blanton: We've not taken a position on that. We believe it's something that local government should decide for themselves.
Martin: That's an issue that's come before the General Assembly in the recent past. Another is the idea of a local option sales tax. What is your position on this?
Blanton: We have spent the last year or so researching the issue, looking at other cities that have passed it. Oklahoma City, Charlotte. Both of those cities and many, many others have that option. Louisville has been spending a lot of time over many years educating the public, and most people in Louisville are fairly familiar with what it entails.
But, in Lexington, the awareness was much lower. So we sat down to talk to people and let them know about the strategy, and the safeguards and accountability that are in place. The legislature first would have to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment. Our Constitution is different than many states in that it prohibits local governments from using many varieties of taxation that might be available in other states. And so, they're very limited in terms of the revenue they can raise.
So, first it has to pass the General Assembly, then the voters of Kentucky would have to pass a constitutional amendment. Then, local governments could form groups within their communities to talk about what project or projects they would like to put before the voters. Up to a 1 percent sales tax increase would be limited to that project or projects — it wouldn't go into the general fund and it would have a sunset. So, as soon as the money that was needed for that project or set of projects was raised, the tax would go away. If the government decided, oh, there are some other projects we want to do, the process starts all over again. They have to come together with a list of projects; it would go back before the voters for that certain amount of time.
But people want to know that it's something that's going to benefit their family, their community. So, there are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that it's something that the local community would support.
Martin: One concern that I've heard about regarding a multicounty metropolitan areas such as ours has been voiced for example by automobile dealers worried that a local option sales tax in Fayette County puts them at an unfair disadvantage against the competitor across the line in Scott County or Jessamine.
Blanton: And that's how the education process has been very helpful. The local option sales tax would only be applied to things that currently have the sales tax. Staples like food are not taxed, medicines are not taxed, so they would not be subject to that. The car tax is actually an excise tax. It seems like a local sales tax to you, but it's actually considered an excise tax so that additional 1 percent would not be applied to your car purchase.