Gov. Steve Beshear took a quick detour in his televised speech Monday night about the special legislative session on state pension reforms to mention the need for officials to seize the helm of the seemingly adrift ship of state.
“You know, in tough times more than any other, leadership is critical,” Beshear said. “We can – and we must – step up to provide that leadership.”
Beshear essentially left it at that, moving on to talk about how other states are battling budget woes. He didn't offer any specifics or lay out the path he envisions taking to bring Kentucky out of its financial wilderness and cycle of poverty.
Leadership, after all, is one of those terms that is easy to say but tough to describe.
But many veteran lawmakers said they can pick out bold leadership when they see it. When asked to cite a prime example within the last 30 years, almost all of those interviewed – Republicans and Democrats – came up with the same answer first:
Democratic former Gov. Paul Patton's higher education reforms in 1997.
They mentioned others – the Kentucky Education Reform Act and approval of the lottery under Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, the push to bring Toyota to Kentucky by Gov. Martha Layne Collins and a tax code change bill by Gov. Ernie Fletcher.
But higher education reform was picked as the gold standard by some of those lawmakers who have worked with the last several administrations.
Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, who came to the state House in 1972, said Patton faced fierce opposition from the University of Kentucky as well as lawmakers near community colleges. They objected to Patton's plan to split the community and technical college system from UK.
“I think it's proven today that the governor took the bold step, getting out front, and he proved to be right. And I told him that,” said Rep. Danny Ford, a Mount Vernon Republican who opposed the ref orms.
“It was a vote I wish I could take back because it's been proven to be very beneficial,” said Ford.
Ford and Rep. Eddie Ballard, D-Hopkinsville, a veteran lawmaker who also opposed that bill, said Patton succeeded by connecting with lawmakers better than any other governor.
“He would call you personally, call you to the office personally,” said Ford, who was Republican floor leader at the time. “He never held a grudge if you were against him. He never tried to bring punishment to you. He looked to the next item he'd be working on because he knew that if he wasn't working with you today, maybe he would be tomorrow. That created a lot of success for him.”
Republican Sen. Charlie Borders of Grayson, one of the key votes for the bill in the Senate, described Patton's leadership style as decisive and straightforward.
“He knew where he wanted to go. He could explain it. And he relied also on people who shared his view on the issue,” Borders said.
But Patton's reforms haven't been truly realized, Borders said, mostly because the Council on Postsecondary Education, created as an advocate for the universities, hasn't had the teeth that the reforms originally envisioned.
And money is scarce, putting at risk the long-term goals of Kentucky's universities.
But just as necessity is the mother of invention, trying times can often produce bold leadership.
“The time is absolutely now. And it's always been now,” said Democratic Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville. “I think Kentucky has to get a vision or develop a vision that is incrementally attainable.”
To do that requires more than legislation, it requires a reform of mind-sets for both politicians and voters, he said. And it means a leader who can lay out a vision and articulate what is at stake and what can be gained.
“It takes a leadership at the top. Only a governor can do that,” Neal said. “But only a legislature and other political entities can be wise enough to not allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the chance for Kentucky to advance.”
That might sound “hokey,” Neal warned. But the alternative is remaining adrift or falling behind unknowingly.
“If you don't do that, what happens is that parochialism takes hold — everybody has their own separate piece,” he said. “And in doing that you cannot move forward as a state