Finally, a leader for the mountains

Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, represents the 94th District (Pike, Harlan, Letcher counties) in the Kentucky House.
Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Pikeville, represents the 94th District (Pike, Harlan, Letcher counties) in the Kentucky House.

It should not require political courage to voice what many of your constituents are yearning to hear. But the hostility created by the "war on coal" PR blitz has made thoughtful discourse on the future of Eastern Kentucky a political risk.

No one wants to be branded as disloyal to coal. In such an overheated atmosphere, state Rep. Leslie Combs' thoughtful commentary in Sunday's Herald-Leader did take courage. The risk was worth it because what she's saying is important.

Her words provide more evidence that Kentuckians of good will are eager to get to work building a better future for our coalfields.

Also, her eagerness to lead on this challenge is a refreshing contrast to her colleagues in the legislature, Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky's delegation in Washington.

Too many of them are still trying to use economic fears to divide Kentuckians.

The coal industry has a lot of problems, including the current surplus of cheap natural gas and longer-term concerns about coal's leading role in climate change.

The industry in Eastern Kentucky has a whole additional set of problems, stemming from the depletion of the big, profitable coal deposits by a century of mining. Even if President Barack Obama called off what his detractors call the "war on coal" tomorrow, the Appalachian coal industry would still be in trouble because of the high cost of mining thin, rocky seams.

"We've known this day was coming," Combs wrote, which is why the legislature in 1992 set aside two-thirds of the local share of coal severance tax revenue for economic development, to prepare for coal's decline as an economic force.

Combs, D-Pikeville, has sponsored legislation to return a greater share of the tax on mined and processed coal to the counties where the coal is produced.

We've long supported raising the coal severance tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent of gross value, the same as in West Virginia. The additional revenue could be dedicated to a perpetual trust fund for coal counties, such as those created by western mining states.

We could also support returning more of the severance tax to coal counties, but only if there is a smart plan based on sound economics and governance that would be democratic, transparent and accountable with quantifiable measures of success and failure.

Of course, returning more severance tax to coal counties would require the legislature to balance the state budget by raising new revenue through tax reform, which would also require political leadership which, as we've said, is thinner than one of those Eastern Kentucky coal seams.

Combs' bottom line — "focus less on placing blame and more on how coal-mining regions can move forward" — is unassailable.

As much as we applaud her for speaking out, we also must, respectfully and in the spirit of an open exchange of ideas, challenge one of her proposals: the notion of luring high-paying jobs to Eastern Kentucky with tax breaks. We're not altogether opposed to targeted tax incentives, especially for higher-paying jobs, although states and cities have gone overboard on tax giveaways as economic policy.

Let's not lose sight of our history. Giving away the store in exchange for jobs replicates the coal industry model. The profits from the labor of Eastern Kentuckians flowed to faraway cities and built great fortunes elsewhere, while the coal-rich places sank into poverty.

Instead of repeating that flawed model — and this is a challenge statewide — let's provide incentives and support for businesses and employers who will generate jobs and wealth that stay here.

That kind of economic development requires more brain power, collectively and individually. But the chances for prosperity will be multiplied if we build on our assets and home-grow jobs rather than try to import them by competing on costs with the world's poorest places.