State research center's demise comes as surprise

For 17 years, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center studied complicated issues — including topics such as obesity, immigration and aging — and suggested how Kentucky might respond. It predicted some events before they happened, like the decline of tobacco as part of the state's economy.

One event it didn't predict was its own end.

Last week, the General Assembly stuck two sentences into the 2010-12 legislative budget, ordering the center to close June 30 and eliminating the roughly $560,000 a year that it received.

The center's six soon-to-be jobless employees are trying to figure out what happened.

"People have asked me if anybody offered any kind of explanation, and the answer is 'No.' I haven't even heard through back channels whether somebody was irritated with us about a report we issued or something else we've done," said Michael Childress, executive director of the center since it opened in 1993.

Childress said neither he nor the other employees have plans for what they'll do next.

It's nothing personal, said Senate budget chairman Bob Leeper, an independent from Paducah. The Senate stripped the center from the legislature's roughly $52 million annual budget because money is tight, and the center didn't seem like a necessity, Leeper said.

The House funded the center in its version of the legislative budget, but the Senate carried the day.

"It just seemed like a place where we could save some money," Leeper said.

Although the 2010-12 executive branch budget is unresolved, the legislature passed its budget and the judicial budget last Thursday before taking a two-week break in its session. By law, the center was included in the legislative budget, now awaiting Gov. Steve Beshear's signature.

The General Assembly created the center two decades ago during an ambitious progressive period in Frankfort. Lawmakers, for example, had just improved school funding and curricula with the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

At the time, recognizing the complexity of many problems they wanted to tackle, they established an independent state agency for policy analysis. The executive and legislative branches would recommend subjects to be researched.

"Too often as politicians we're just thinking to the next election, to the end of this term," said Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, who sits on the center's governing board. "We needed people to make us think about the larger problems we're going to be facing over a period of years."

The center has published stacks of reports and hosted annual conferences attended, cumulatively, by thousands of people.

Childress lamented that, after an initial spurt of interest by the legislature, much of this research was ignored. He referred to the "Olympic Diver's Syndrome," where a report looks impressive but doesn't make a splash.

In 1996, for example, the center warned that Kentucky's outdated tax code was creating a structural deficit in the state budget. That did not generate much response. This year, lawmakers again postponed tax reform and faced a $1.5 billion budget shortfall.

On the other hand, Childress said, the center's 1994 report predicting the waning of Kentucky burley tobacco — a controversial view at the time, he said — created a sense of urgency that helped win federal grants for projects to find alternative crops.

Rollins said he understands the need to cut spending and noted that the center, like most state agencies, has absorbed funding reductions in recent years. But he objects to eliminating it.

"I don't know if they were targeted for some reason or not," Rollins said. "But I think it's very shortsighted to not have people studying the larger issues facing the state."