Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Chamber offers solutions for Kentucky's future

Tom Eblen
Tom Eblen

I am increasingly impressed with the leadership of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Rather than just taking care of business, it seems to realize that improving life in Kentucky will help create economic prosperity.

That was apparent at last week's annual meeting in Louisville. The agenda focused on substantive discussions of two of Kentucky's biggest issues, coal and education.

For example, the keynote speaker on coal was journalist James Fallows, whose Atlantic magazine cover story last December was one of the best things I have read on the subject. "Coal is inevitably going to be a major part of the world's energy solution for the foreseeable future," he said. "But that role will be and has to be different."

While Fallows characterized his remarks as a "good news speech," it was nothing like the hot air we usually hear from the coal industry and its cheerleaders.

No matter how successful the world is at developing alternative energy, coal will remain a vital fuel for decades, Fallows said. But he stressed that global economic, scientific and political trends will require that coal be mined and burned in more environmentally friendly ways. It is smarter to lead change than be trampled by it.

Solutions built around market incentives — such as the ill-fated "cap and trade" proposal — would be better than regulation because they would encourage business creativity and flexibility, Fallows said. But if business wants market-driven change rather than regulatory change, he said, "high-level industrial leadership is important."

Fallows was followed by Michael G. Morris, chairman of American Electric Power, whose remarks were titled "Coal Under Attack." While saying that coal must get "cleaner," his rambling presentation was filled with the usual clichés about new environmental rules being unfair and unreasonable.

Morris bragged about how much less pollution coal-fired power plants emit now than they used to — as if that were the result of industry leadership rather than government regulations that most utilities fought every step of the way.

Morris repeated an earlier claim that new regulations will have a "devastating effect" on AEP, shutting down 6,000 megawatts of generating capacity. But as another speaker pointed out later, two-thirds of that capacity was going to be retired anyway because of a 2007 pollution settlement with the Bush administration.

I was impressed that so many chamber members seemed wise to Morris, even ignoring most of his attempts at applause and laugh lines.

Morris was followed by Rodney Andrews, director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Applied Energy Research. He gave an excellent but rushed presentation that echoed many of Fallows' points and made a persuasive economic and environmental argument for making coal-fired power plants more efficient. I would like to have heard more from him.

The chamber announced some initiatives that could have a big impact. The New Agenda for Kentucky Campaign focuses on action plans in five areas: improving schools, modernizing government, remaining competitive in energy resources, doubling international exports within five years and improving Kentuckians' health and wellness.

Perhaps the most impressive effort is the Kentucky Leadership Institute for School Principals. AT&T and other companies are giving money to send many Kentucky school principals to the respected (and expensive) Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina to get the kind of high-level leadership training that business executives receive.

The chamber also unveiled a follow-up to its 2009 "Leaky Bucket" study, which underscored how huge increases in state spending for public employee health care, Medicaid and prisons were contributing to a short-change of education.

That report provided encouragement — and political cover — for landmark legislation earlier this year to rewrite Kentucky's criminal code. It will reduce the number of non-violent offenders in jails and prisons, send more drug offenders to treatment and save a lot of taxpayer money in the process.

The chamber's new report, called "Building a Stronger Bucket," offers more suggested policy changes, including moving new state employees to a 401(k)-style pension plan.

Too often in the past, Kentucky has fallen behind the rest of the nation when narrow economic or political interests wielded too much power. Building a better future will require that many perspectives be considered and many voices be heard.

Still, no single group can do more to make this state a better place to live than a progressive organization that represents a broad spectrum of the business community. The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce seems to be stepping up to the challenge.