Short term crisis, long term change

It's an axiom in management that in every crisis there's opportunity.

The most fundamental charge for Gov. Steve Beshear and the General Assembly as they contemplate how to deal with the latest revenue shortfall in the state's budget is to seize the opportunity.

Short term, the outlook is grim. Beshear may call a special session and propose an increase in the cigarette tax to help bridge the anticipated $294 million shortfall this year. This makes sense, both to raise revenue and to discourage young people from taking up the deadly habit.

Kentucky's Republicans could be good election winners and support an increase to help get us through these hard times. But that's unlikely and Beshear may find himself alone in the governor's mansion making those dreadful cuts.

Longer term, the debate must go far beyond casino gambling on the revenue side and more draconian cuts in education and social services on the spending side.

To get out of this endless and unproductive cycle of managing from crisis to crisis, Kentucky's leaders must be smart, tactical and willing to forego at least a little political posturing.

Consider revenue first. It's past time to overhaul our tax structure to reflect the modern service economy, to capture income on the work people do with their minds not just their muscles.

The General Assembly must also loosen restrictions on the ways local communities can raise revenue.

On the spending side, there is already a sign of rationality and opportunity for nonpartisan agreement.

Beshear's Transportation Cabinet has taken hopeful steps to assure road and bridge projects are "right sized," meaning designed to be safe and suited to the need, rather than over-built monuments to political influence.

There are also signs that Kentucky may be willing to deal with an addiction to locking people up that is destroying both the state and county budgets.

Some of the numbers bear repeating: Thirty years ago, Kentucky had about 3,000 felons in custody at a cost of about $10 million a year; early this year, we had almost 23,000 felons in custody and with a corrections budget of $450 million annually, not including new prison construction.

The Kentucky Criminal Justice Council has been meeting for months to sort out how to change criminal law to lock up fewer people without endangering our communities.

The group — made up of Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown, prosecutors, public defenders, legislators and other state officials — will report to Beshear soon with proposals likely to range from expanding parole for elderly and very sick inmates to reclassifying some offences from felonies to misdemeanors.

Expanding substance-abuse programs in the prisons and diverting more offenders into treatment are ideas championed by both Republican and Democratic legislators.

These reforms could save the state and counties millions and give thousands of people a chance to work, pay taxes, support their families and contribute to their communities.

We're in a crisis.

It's up to our leaders to seize the opportunity it offers.