Diversify economy, grow jobs through overdue investment

Jim Gray
Jim Gray

It’s beyond time to pay attention and invest in Kentuckians. The latest jobs report confirms what we already knew: As coal jobs decline, so does the way of life in coal communities — the fabric of our state for generations. Kentucky families deserve better.

A good job gives purpose and meaning to life. Next to family, faith and health, it is the most important thing in life. And that’s why I’m focused on growing our economy.

With a good plan, we can improve. In my family’s business we learned some lessons over 50 years. One was that you can’t build a small business into one of America’s leading construction companies without a good plan. Rand Paul wouldn’t understand that lesson. He’s never built a business or created jobs. He’s spent a lot of time attacking others, but he hasn’t done anything — except talk and point fingers — to help our coal-dependent regions and the people who live there.

In fact, Paul was one of only 12 senators who voted against funding that would assist in research for coal-transition assistance. The bipartisan legislation proposed $3 billion to develop clean-coal technology. He also voted against Rep. Hal Rogers’ proposal to include $30 million for mine reclamation projects and $10 million for job training tied to programs to diversify the economy.

This is not the time to turn our backs on an industry and families who for generations provided so much for America. One thing is sure: The quick-fix tax zones Paul has proposed haven’t worked elsewhere and, at best, would be a Band-Aid on a wound that has long been hemorrhaging. It’s time to make seriously needed investments that diversify our economy, expand businesses and attract new industry.

It’s also important to understand the needs of our people. That’s why I reached out to local officials, like Knott County Judge-Executive Zach Weinberg, to hear about the plight of our families and businesses and what we can do to breathe new life into coal-dependent regions. Weinberg and I discussed my plan, focused on attracting industries that will diversify and boost the economy.

First, we must be deliberate in growing existing businesses and bringing more industries and companies to Kentucky. That means investing in modern infrastructure for a modern economy. Specifically, improving rural roads and bridges, and expanding high-speed internet access through public-private partnerships.

Couple that with targeted business incentives, and we’ll see results. Look at Toyota — a game changer for Kentucky’s economy. Hundreds of suppliers followed. Business and government worked together to make the Toyota dream a reality. We can do it again.

Second, we must invest in innovation and technology. The federal government can play a larger role in partnership with the private sector to develop effective carbon-capture and storage technology. New technologies are always expensive at first; then they become effective. But clean coal can still play a vital role in providing energy from domestic, instead of foreign, sources and ensure we have a diverse supply of energy.

Third, we must provide training for jobs of the future. We can attract new industries and companies by providing them with a well-trained and hardworking local workforce. I support Sen. Mitch McConnell’s efforts to bring federal funding to help retrain coal workers and will join him in the fight to make it happen.

And, finally, we must protect the pensions of hard-working miners. Through no fault of their own, miners who rely on their pensions may end up losing them in a matter of months. One of my first priorities will be to advocate for the Miners Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that would ensure miners’ pensions are honored. This funding would support a deserving segment of our commonwealth and avoid another reduction in revenue to these communities.

The decline of coal jobs in Kentucky isn’t just about our economy, energy prices or partisan politics. It’s about our people, their culture and homes, and a way of life.

America has bailed out the banks. And we’ve bailed out the automotive industry. Kentucky coal country doesn’t need a bailout, it needs investment for the future. We must invest in the people and communities who have been the source of America’s energy security, industrial might and manufacturing strength.

In the Senate, I will work with whoever is president and whoever is in Congress, our state Capitol and county seats, to build a stronger, more prosperous Kentucky.

That’s how we need to get things done in the future.

Jim Gray, Lexington mayor, is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.