Beshear shrugs at plea for E. Ky. economic reboot

Regular readers of this page will remember that three Sundays ago, Al Smith, a former head of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and Ron Eller, the pre-eminent scholar and historian of Eastern Kentucky, penned a plea to Gov. Steve Beshear.

They urged the governor to bring community leaders together to seek new directions for the economically battered region.

Last Sunday, we published a piece by Richard S. Levine, a former professor of architecture at the University of Kentucky, and Ernie Yanarella, chair of the UK political science department, describing a consensus-building process that could be used to develop a "soft landing for coal policy" that would "seek to preserve the economic futures of coal communities" and their workers.

As the coal industry shrivels in Eastern Kentucky, a place that has always been among this nation's poorest, the region's future is weighing heavily on the minds of many Kentuckians. People are eager to engage the challenges of the future.

Smith and Eller even laid out a model, the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force created by Gov. Brereton Jones in the early 1990s, which led to the creation of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission. The commission had some success coordinating government development policy based on citizen input, until Gov. Ernie Fletcher decided it had become too politicized and defunded it.

Like us, you might have wondered what, if any, response Beshear has had to Smith, Eller and others clamoring to get to work on some kind of plan for the future.

We asked Beshear's office. The response that came back was not quite "Beshear to E.Ky.: Drop dead." (That's a play on a famous New York Daily News headline from the 1970s.)

But the response — which came from the governor's press secretary, not the governor himself — will disappoint anyone who cares about the region and its future.

Beshear's spokeswoman Kerri Richardson emailed us this: "Gov. Beshear's administration recognizes the challenges facing Eastern Kentucky, made more difficult by the recent global economic downturn, the reduced demand for coal and continued poor health outcomes. Since he took office, the governor has directed his cabinets to consider ways to assist this region through economic development, access to education and health care, environmental protection and improved transportation. Our future relies on all our regions thriving, and the governor welcomes continued discussion and cooperation on how to meet these challenges."

Beshear is right about one thing: The state's future is inextricably tied to the future of the mountains, which is why his lack of leadership, in the face of economic crisis, is so dismaying and demoralizing.