Archive for the ‘Kentucky’ Category

It isn’t just the economy, stupid

First published Nov. 7, 2015

Matt Bevin, during his visit to Bardstown in late September for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, told me something that helps explain his nearly nine-point win over Jack Conway in last week’s election for governor.

“When I began this race, I was focused entirely on economic issues … . Yet in recent days and weeks … the social issues have moved to the forefront and probably will stay there,” he said.

This was right after a county clerk had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples because it violated her religious convictions, and also after outrage over revelations that Planned Parenthood had been harvesting body parts of aborted infants.

The folk Bevin talked with in every hamlet care about these things, he said.

These are the same people President Barack Obama insulted when he said working class Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” because they’re frustrated with their economic situations.

Years before, Bill Clinton’s campaign guru, James Carville, came up with his unforgettable dictum for his campaign workers — it’s “the economy, stupid.”

But it isn’t, and never was entirely.

This may come as a surprise to most Democrats, but what bothers many rural voters even more than the economy is the mindset of secular urban liberals that people like them — who honor God, enjoy guns, trucks and church picnics, and cherish traditional family values — are cretins or circus freaks.

These common people care about the environment, but also care about unemployed miners and their families. They don’t want abortion to be a crime, but they know it’s a tragedy and can’t understand women who talk about their bodies as if babies weren’t also bodies and souls. They think government should give a helping hand to those who need it, but not endless handouts to those who won’t help themselves.

The Democratic Party calls itself the party of the people, but it hasn’t been that for a long time. It mostly represents an affluent, college-educated, culturally liberal, suburban white minority.

But who represents the black Baptist preacher who is concerned about out-of-wedlock births, the drug culture and youth violence?

Who represents the teacher who wants out because she can’t control her students who have never been disciplined by their parents and have no respect for authority?

Who represents the police officer that puts his life on the line every day to protect others, only to be treated with contempt because of the actions of the few who are a discredit to their code of honor?

Voters who support public education, fair wages, affordable health insurance and the promise of Social Security, but who also are socially conservative should be the natural constituency of Democrats in Kentucky and most other rural states, but almost no one is offering that choice anymore. Their choice is either a Republican Party that cares more about millionaires’ hedge funds than Head Start, or a Democratic Party that is liberal across the board. Is it any wonder that the fastest growing party affiliation is no affiliation at all — or independent?

It’s true that Kentucky Democrats are a little different than Democrats in San Francisco or Boston.

Jack Conway, to his credit, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over regulations intended to shutter coal-fired power plants. He took a cautious, wait-and-see approach on Medicaid expansion and listened to what the actuaries were saying. And he said he favored finding a solution that would protect county clerks’ rights of conscience while ensuring that those who are legally entitled to marriage licenses can get them. But every circular that came in the mail from the Republican Governors Association mentioned Obama’s name about as many times as Conway’s, because the president is not popular in Kentucky.

State Auditor Adam Edelen did almost everything right in his four years in office and had some significant accomplishments, such as putting a corrupt former commissioner of agriculture in prison, making special taxing districts more transparent and holding them accountable to elected officials.

Yet Edelen admitted during a campaign rally at Wickland that the policies of the national Democratic Party often make it hard to wear the brand in Kentucky.

He’s right. As long as they are identified with a party that is out of touch with the bedrock moral and cultural values of most people in this state, the influence of Kentucky Democrats will wane until they are politically viable only in cities like Lexington and Louisville.

In fact, after last week’s Republican landslide, I think Kentucky is already close to becoming a one-party state, as it was from the Jacksonian era until the 21st century, when it was solidly Democratic except for pockets of Republicanism in places like the 5th House District and affluent suburbs of Northern Kentucky. But this time, the one-party state will be red, at least until the millennials become the majority, assuming they don’t become more conservative as they age, as most generations do.

Will Bevin, Kentucky GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

First published June 19, 2015

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter gubernatorial contest. I figured Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer would win the primary and beat Democrat Jack Conway in the general. Louisville businessman Hal Heiner might have had a chance, but I wouldn’t have placed a $2 bet on Bevin or retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, whose shoe-leather campaign never gained traction.

That was before the rumors about Comer’s woman problem.

Less than an hour before Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal broke the story based on an interview with Comer’s college girlfriend, a Heiner supporter called to tell me it was coming. When I read the story, I knew it was over for Comer — and probably for Heiner too, because his people were likely behind it.

That left Bevin, who had taken the high road, as the obvious beneficiary.

But Bevin?

Like Rand Paul, who ran against the party establishment and had to accommodate it once elected, Bevin must do the same. The video was a clever way of admitting it.

On June 10, I interviewed Bevin and his running mate, Jenean Hampton, on PLG-TV, and he told me he didn’t like labels.

“A tea party favorite? I’m not sure what that means,” he said.

He said he had never belonged to a tea party group, but was of “like mind” with them on constitutional government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.

He also said the bad blood between McConnell and himself was fiction, and he had “voted for the guy every time” except when he ran against him.

Make no mistake, Matt Bevin is the most far-right conservative who has ever run a race for governor in Kentucky. He has said he would like to reduce or eliminate taxes except for “consumption” (sales) taxes and reduce spending. He wants to make Kentucky a state where those who work in places that have won the right of collective bargaining wouldn’t have to pay for union representation. He is against raising the minimum wage and would end the prevailing wage. He would take away teachers’ defined-benefits pensions and enroll them in something like a 401(k).

His first executive order would be to abolish Kynect, the state’s popular health insurance exchange, and he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid. He opposes Common Core and supports charter schools.

How this agenda will play out in a purple state where Republicans historically have been more like John Sherman Cooper than Ted Cruz remains to be seen. But if Bevin can take a page from McConnell’s playbook on how to pivot, he could succeed.

Family stories are Kentucky’s history

First published April 17, 2015

When the big snow of February 1994 brought Lexington to a standstill for two days, I didn’t mind because it gave me time off from my job at Transylvania University to read Robert V. Remini’s magisterial biography of Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.

The setting for reading the book was ideal. The building I worked in, Old Morrison, was built under the supervision of Clay, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, candidate for president and one of the great senators of the antebellum era. He also taught law at the university, and his little law office still stood about a block away from my apartment, which overlooked the backyard of the Hunt-Morgan House in historic Gratz Park.

Clay and his family worshipped at the Episcopal cathedral on the other side of the park, Christ Church, and theirestate, Ashland, was only a mile or so away.

Living in the Bluegrass, I was always reminded of the Clay family. The old Colby Tavern near my parents’ home in Clark County was a stagecoach stop between Lexington and Winchester where Henry Clay sometimes stayed the night before trying cases at the Clark County Courthouse.

On the way to Richmond, where I cut my teeth as a young reporter, was White Hall, the mansion of Henry’s cousin, Cassius Marcellus Clay, the famous abolitionist, newspaper editor and President Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia. The hospital in Richmond was named for his daughter, Pattie A. Clay.

And in Mount Sterling, I lived on Clay Street, named for Cassius’ father, Green Clay, who owned land for miles around, and a little red brick house down the street belonged to his family.

The Clays’ rich legacy is a reminder that the history of Kentucky is the history of the families that made our commonwealth what it is today. But that history is not only the story of the great and famous, but of those who aren’t as well known, yet made important contributions — families like the Coomeses of Bardstown.

If you read this column regularly, you may remember that last year around Veterans Day I wrote about Bill Coomes, a Marine in World War II who fought in the bloody Battle of Iwo Jima.

We’ve all seen the iconic image of Marines raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi, but Bill saw it firsthand from a few hundred yards away. When I interviewed him, he told me his father had fought in the trenches in World War I, his brother served in Korea and his son in Vietnam.

Days after the column was published, Bill stopped by the office to thank me for mentioning him, and he had a thin green folder containing some family background.

I learned the Coomeses played an important part in Kentucky’s story long before the 20th century.

If the genealogy is accurate, Bill’s great-great-great-great grandparents, William Coomes and Jane Frances Greenleaf Coomes, were an Irish Catholic couple from Maryland who came to Kentucky in 1775 with a party led by Abraham and Isaac Hite. They helped establish the first colonial settlement in Kentucky, Fort Harrod (now Harrodsburg) and defended it against Indian attacks.

William, who also fought in the Battle of Blue Licks during the Revolution, and his family moved in 1783 to Kentucky’s second city, Bardstown, which they also helped establish. They played a major part in the formation of the Catholic Church in this area, and donated part of their farm to the new western diocese for its see, which is now the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral.

And Jane Coomes, according to the history, was Kentucky’s first schoolteacher.

That, as the late radio announcer and armchair historian Paul Harvey would say, is “the rest of the story.”

Negotiation requires dialogue, mutual respect

May 9, 2015

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

The quote from the 1967 film, “Cool Hand Luke” is first spoken by a prison warden before he starts pummeling the prisoner played by Paul Newman — and later by the prisoner himself when he’s surrounded and about to be shot.

I remembered that line last week when I was working on a story about “negotiations” between the Bardstown Fire Department and the nonprofit group known officially as the Bardstown-Nelson County Volunteer Fire Department and unofficially as “the corporation.”

When I went on PLG-TV Tuesday to talk about Bardstown Mayor John Royalty’s latest contract proposal, I mentioned that he and City Fire Chief Marlin Howard (who is also the fire chief for the corporation) want to hire a consultant to study a possible merger of the two departments.

At the time, I thought that was still the plan. I learned about an hour later that there wouldn’t be a study when the mayor asked the Bardstown City Council to “strike that” from the budget.

“The 20,000 for the consolidation study — that’s out,” he said.

Under the mayor’s proposal, he wants the corporation to contract with the Bardstown Fire Department to cover fire and rescue services in its service area outside the city limits and increase its $50 “membership fee” (actually a flat tax) as well as the amount of funding the corporation provides the city for joint operations.

The way I read it, the BNCVFD would still exist on paper but would be reduced to a funding mechanism for the Bardstown Fire Department. It would still own its trucks and buildings, but they would be maintained and used by the city. The volunteers would all be under the city’s authority.

Royalty has feels that Stacy Faulkner, the chairman of the corporation board, has been dragging his feet on negotiating a new contract for the fiscal year that begins July 1. According to the mayor’s administrative assistant, Kathy Graham, the corporation didn’t want to contribute $20,000 to the consolidation study, so the mayor decided on a new approach.

Faulkner, however, said he told Royalty the corporation board would fund its half of the study and pay for it by deferring the purchase of some equipment.

“We never said we weren’t going to fund it,” he said.

Faulkner also said he asked the mayor if there was “room to negotiate” on the latest proposal, but was told it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

The chairman said he hasn’t had a chance to talk with the other board members about the proposal. Their next meeting is May 12. And the mayor wants the signed contract on his desk May 15 — or the corporation can pack up and leave.

As a reporter, I can’t take sides. Besides, I don’t know whether it would be best for the two departments to consolidate or separate.

Maybe the mayor’s proposal is the best option, or maybe there should be a countywide special taxing district, as Chief Ted Shields of the Northeast Nelson County Fire Protection District has suggested. It isn’t for me to say.

What I can say is what Chief Howard has said time and again — that the most important thing is for the fire service or services to provide the best protection they can for its residents, both in the city and in the unincorporated area.

The two sides need to work out something from a standpoint of mutual respect or agree to amicably go their separate ways.

And time is running out to make a decision.

Will Bevin, state GOP be ‘Happy Together’?

If you think Matt Bevin is a dour revolutionary, watch the video. It’s the funniest thing in Kentucky politics since Mitch McConnell’s hound dogs treed Dee Huddleston.

As the Turtles song “Happy Together” plays in the background, Bevin wakes up in a Team Mitch T-shirt, goes to work in an SUV with a Team Mitch license plate and gets a Team Mitch tattoo.

“Yeah, it stings a little bit, but it’s so worth it,” he says.

In one scene, he phones McConnell to warn him: “The word on the street is that Rand is going down to the Senate floor right now. He’s got his pockets filled with energy bars … .They say he’s going to be out there until at least Tuesday.” Then he adds: “Hey, that’s what friends are for, sir.”

It ends with Bevin talking to McConnell like a love-struck teenager.

“No, you hang up. No, really, you hang up,” he says.

Bevin, who won the GOP nomination by 83 votes in a four-way race, probably wasn’t McConnell’s first choice for governor. A year ago, Bevin challenged the Godfather for his seat and reportedly was ungracious after McConnell rolled over him and his Democratic opponent.

Then there was the bitter gubernatorial contest. I figured Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer would win the primary and beat Democrat Jack Conway in the general. Louisville businessman Hal Heiner might have had a chance, but I wouldn’t have placed a $2 bet on Bevin or retired Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott, whose shoe-leather campaign never gained traction.

That was before the rumors about Comer’s woman problem.

Less than an hour before Joe Gerth of The Courier-Journal broke the story based on an interview with Comer’s college girlfriend, a Heiner supporter called to tell me it was coming. When I read the story, I knew it was over for Comer — and probably for Heiner too, because his people were likely behind it.

That left Bevin, who had taken the high road, as the obvious beneficiary.

But Bevin?

Like Rand Paul, who ran against the party establishment and had to accommodate it once elected, Bevin must do the same. The video was a clever way of admitting it.

On June 10, I interviewed Bevin and his running mate, Jenean Hampton, on PLG-TV, and he told me he didn’t like labels.

“A tea party favorite? I’m not sure what that means,” he said.

He said he had never belonged to a tea party group, but was of “like mind” with them on constitutional government, lower taxes and individual responsibility.

He also said the bad blood between McConnell and himself was fiction, and he had “voted for the guy every time” except when he ran against him.

Make no mistake, Matt Bevin is the most far-right conservative who has ever run a race for governor in Kentucky. He has said he would like to reduce or eliminate taxes except for “consumption” (sales) taxes and reduce spending. He wants to make Kentucky a state where those who work in places that have won the right of collective bargaining wouldn’t have to pay for union representation. He is against raising the minimum wage and would end the prevailing wage. He would take away teachers’ defined-benefits pensions and enroll them in something like a 401(k).

His first executive order would be to abolish Kynect, the state’s popular health insurance exchange, and he would reverse Gov. Steve Beshear’s expansion of Medicaid. He opposes Common Core and supports charter schools.

How this agenda will play out in a purple state where Republicans historically have been more like John Sherman Cooper than Ted Cruz remains to be seen. But if Bevin can take a page from McConnell’s playbook on how to pivot, he could succeed.

Require insurers to pay for colonoscopies

Published March 7, 2015

The idea behind preventive health care is that if conditions are discovered and treated before they get worse, people will be healthier and pay less in the long run. But I believe insurance companies put profits before people, which is why regulation is necessary.

Last year this belief was reinforced by a personal experience that resulted in frustration and financial hardship.

In 2004, I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, condition that affects one out of five adults. I’m usually able to control it by taking a fiber supplement and watching my diet. But last winter, I began noticing a dull pain in my lower right abdomen, where I thought my gallbladder was. I made an appointment with Dr. Bennett Asher, my family physician in Winchester for 40 years, and he found nothing to indicate gallbladder disease, but sent me to Clark Regional Medical Center for a CT scan, which confirmed his diagnosis. He also had me follow up with Dr. David McMenamin, a gastroenterologist a few doors down, whose practice, like that of Dr. Asher’s, is owned by the community hospital, which was recently bought by the for-profit company LifePoint.

Dr. McMenamin also concluded I had nothing more serious than IBS, but he wanted me to have a colonoscopy because I hadn’t had one in 10 years.

I had learned that Anthem, my employer’s group insurance carrier, covered routine colonoscopies at 100 percent, so I agreed, as long as there would be no out-of-pocket expense.

The day of the procedure, someone at the hospital told me I should make sure the operation was coded as routine rather than diagnostic, so I called the specialist’s office and was assured it was.

Imagine my surprise when I got a bill from the hospital for $900, plus a bill for outside lab work.

I couldn’t get anyone from the hospital’s billing department to return my calls, so I took time off from work to go there, and was told that because some tissue was sent off for a biopsy, it made the procedure diagnostic, not routine.

“I can’t pay this! It might as well be $9,000,” I said, but all the hospital offered to do was set me up on a payment plan.

I argued with the insurance company, and my employer’s HR person set up a conference call with a health benefits expert in our corporate office, the insurance company and the gastroenterologist’s billing person, who told Anthem the operation was coded as preventive. I thought we were getting somewhere until I got two calls in one day from Anthem telling me the coding was wrong.

I took more time off from work and made another three-hour round trip to Winchester to meet with the doctor and get copies of the paperwork, which showed that the colonoscopy examination was “completely normal” and that “a random biopsy” was taken from “the whole colon.” Nothing about a polyp.

The doctor was apologetic that his coding had been changed.

“They do it all the time,” he added.

I threatened to sue the hospital and the insurance company and even talked to a lawyer, but I’ve now paid about half of the bill, and I’ve given up. Maybe that’s their strategy, to wear you down and make it too costly to challenge them.

I’m still bitter about it, and I’ve said I’d never have another colonoscopy until the government does something about this practice.

Maybe it won’t be a long wait.

Last week, the Kentucky House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 61, sponsored by another Clark County doctor, Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester. The bill, similar to one Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, shepherded through the House in February, would require insurers to cover follow-up colonoscopies resulting from colorectal cancer screenings without imposing additional deductible or insurance costs on patients. With Burch’s leadership, the Senate bill passed the House last week, 95-5, and was sent to Gov. Steve Beshear for his signature.

I hope the governor will, with a stroke of his pen, remove this financial barrier to encouraging those of us over 50 to do what we should to avoid the second leading cause of cancer deaths in Kentucky, but also one of the most preventable.

Wouldn’t that be a fitting way to mark Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month?

Lessons in faith from servants of the homeless

Published Feb. 20, 2015

Two out of three Sundays, my niece and I attend a Eucharist service in Lexington’s tony Chevy Chase neighborhood. The liturgy always ends with these words — “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”

Then we drive back, past stately old houses and leafy yards, bicyclists, bakeries and boutiques, and onto Winchester Road, past greasy diners and gas stations, tattoo parlors, strip clubs and street people, and a brick building with a large Latin cross.

I never knew what the building was until I went there recently with students from St. Catharine College. It’s an overnight shelter, the Community Inn, run by the Catholic Action Center, which also feeds, clothes and provides laundry service to the destitute at other facilities nearby.

In these places, saints and sinners love and serve the Lord by loving and serving those he called “the least of these.”

The St. Catharine students’ class on faith and homelessness is taught by Matthew Branstetter, professor of philosophy and religion, who volunteered for the Catholic Action Center while he was in seminary in Lexington and was changed by his encounters with the poor. Now he wants his students to consider how they are changed once they’ve looked into the faces of those in need, and consider questions such as whether charity is enough and what their religious traditions say about poverty and social justice.

Helping the hard-core homeless can be frustrating and humbling. I know. For many years, I led a group of volunteers from my church who served meals at Lexington’s Hope Center to drug addicts, mentally ill men and some who seemed normal. It was as discouraging to see new faces and wonder how they ended up there as it was to see the same old faces month after month for nearly a decade.

Some of the Hope Center’s guests were ingrates. Others were gracious, like the ragged man who held my eyes with his when I asked how he was and answered with sincerity, “I’m blessed. I really am.”

In that moment my own hurts and disappointments didn’t seem so important anymore.

Sojourners founder Jim Wallis said, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.”

Ginny Ramsey, Gary McKinley and Barry McGuffin are believers. They spoke to the class on Fridays in February. Ginny runs Catholic Action and often does battle with city officials on behalf of Lexington’s outcasts. Gary is a Purple Heart veteran and cook at Catholic Action’s kitchen and ministers to homeless veterans. Barry is a pastor who operates Bethany Haven, a transitional homeless shelter in Bardstown.

Something I’ve learned from these people — and I hope the students have learned too — is that that to effectively serve those who are broken, you have to look past “their hang-ups,” as Matt said, and see them as our neighbors.

Barry told us Bethany Haven’s success rate — which is defined as someone getting an income and a permanent place to live — is a little better than 50 percent. But he added, “I can’t dwell on the 48 percent who don’t succeed because that would be devastating.”

While Bethany Haven serves women and families as a transitional residence, there is no emergency shelter or homeless shelter for single men in Nelson County. Barry and others hope to change that.

The need is great. We have people living in caves and woods, and, as I described in a recent story, in their vehicles in the brutal cold.

Some local leaders I’ve talked with about the need for an emergency shelter, who have a heart for the poor, are concerned that the shelter would attract vagrants and undesirables from other counties. It would. But there are ways to coordinate efforts among social service groups and faith-based charities to make sure those people aren’t gaming the system, and there are leaders among us who know how to make that work.

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded that each of us has failed. The fact that others have made mistakes shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help them.

We’ve heard it said God only helps those who help themselves. Nothing could be further from the Gospel. God helps those who deserve nothing, and so should we. And sometimes our helping can be the spark that reignites hope in them that they can help themselves.

Kentucky a model for bipartisan progress

Published Jan. 9, 2015

In his last State of the Commonwealth message to a joint session of the Kentucky House and Senate, Gov. Steve Beshear on Wednesday night was exuberant in describing the progress Kentucky has made under his leadership since he took office at the beginning of a devastating global recession.

The unemployment rate, he said, has fallen from 10.7 percent to 6 percent and is still dropping. Last year alone, manufacturing, service and technology companies announced 350 new location and expansion projects — nearly one a day. In 2013, the state had the highest percentage of business growth in the nation. The state shattered international trade records for the past two years.

Under the state’s health exchange for the federal Affordable Care Act, Kynect, and his expansion of Medicaid, Kentucky had the second biggest decrease in the nation in the percentage of uninsured, from 20 to 12 percent in one year.

The state raised its mandatory high school graduation rate and its percentage of graduates, greatly improved college and career readiness and established rigorous education performance standards.

By almost every measure, Kentucky is better off than it was when Beshear became governor, and compares favorably to most other states. But the governor was careful to give credit not only to his administration, but also to the state legislators — Republicans and Democrats — and he described how a change in attitude and atmosphere had contributed to those successes and the “sense of optimism and energy” they have fostered.

In 2007, state government was “poisoned by rivalries and partisanship,” and an atmosphere of “derision and division.”

State leaders, “distracted by partisan gamesmanship,” forgot why they were elected, and the results were dire.

“Kentucky was broke and broken,” he said.

That has changed dramatically under the leadership of Republican Senate President Robert Stivers and Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo, both of Eastern Kentucky, who earned special mention by the governor.

Left unsaid, but implied, was that Stivers’ more collaborative leadership, which is a stark contrast to the Machiavellian approach of his predecessor, David Williams, has made a huge difference. Stivers is a partisan and a redoubtable adversary, but he also knows how to get things done by working with his friends across the aisle and on the other end of the Capitol without compromising principles.

Bipartisan government is something the extremists of the right and left just can’t comprehend or choose to ignore.

Beshear decried the “inflammatory rhetoric” that substitutes for meaningful public discourse outside the mainstream media.

“Places like talk radio and social media thrive on disrespect, insults, intolerance and downright hatefulness,” the governor said. “It’s easy to get caught up in this negative dialogue, to believe that such rancor is mandatory, and to conclude that consensus and collaboration are cardinal sins. But that’s not what being a leader is about, and it’s not what we’ve seen here in Frankfort in the last seven years. Instead, we have fostered a respectful relationship that reaches across political lines, geographic areas and branches of government. And we’ve done so because we have recognized the distinction between campaigning and governing.”

There is a place for partisan politics, said Beshear, who is strongly partisan when it comes to waging campaigns. But it is not after the elections, when lawmakers and administrators are responsible for putting aside their differences and doing the people’s business.

There’s a lesson that can be learned from Kentucky’s example, from City Hall to Congress. Let’s hope that 2015 will be a year when we see more compromise, civility and mutual respect in local and national, as well as state, government.

The Preacher, the serpent and the library tax

Published Jan. 3, 2015

I remember it like it was yesterday. The Madison County Fiscal Court meeting room was packed with TV cameramen and newspaper reporters jostling for position to get a good look at the Preacher who was leading the campaign against the library tax.

After the ushers passed the plate for an offering, the Preacher asked all of us to bow our heads, which even the reporters did, not wanting to appear the infidels we’re sometimes accused of being. But as the Preacher invoked the Name of the Almighty, suddenly, we were wide-eyed, realizing he was asking Jehovah to smite the library. The daily I was working for then, The Richmond Register, had been solidly behind the petition drive to enact a special district property tax necessary to establish a public library in what was probably the largest county in Kentucky without one. The paper regularly ran a graphic on the front page of a bookworm, and as supporters gathered more signatures, the cute creature was colored in with blue printer’s ink, starting at the tail and working toward its grinning face.

The Preacher, however, thought it was something more sinister. As I snapped away with my Pentax, the slight figure held up a copy of the Register to show to the crowd.

“Isn’t it fitting that the enemy have chosen as their symbol a serpent?” he said.

Or words to that effect.

I was dumfounded, but when I recovered my senses, I piped up.

“Reverend,” I said, “I think that is a bookworm, not a serpent.”

The Preacher glared at me, looked at the picture, then back at me and said: “Son, I grew up on a farm, and I know a snake when I see one!”

That was the tenor of the debate over the library tax in Madison County in the early 1990s. Some of the arguments I heard against the library at a big public forum on Eastern Kentucky University’s campus was that children would read salacious literature that would corrupt their innocent minds, and if teenagers got too much book learning, their families wouldn’t be able to keep them down on the farm.

I remember one of the pressmen, whose name was Michael J. Fox (I’m not making this up) railing against the tax until I told him how much it would cost, and he switched sides on the spot. The only taxable property he owned was an old car, so the tax he paid in a year would be about what he’d pay for a lunch date at KFC.

Fortunately, the petition passed, the property tax was levied, and the library was established in a vacant storefront in Berea while plans were made to build facilities in Berea and Richmond. Now Madison County has a great library system, and my good friend Ruthie, who was the lifestyles editor of the Register at the time, is its director.

This memory came to mind recently when I was working on a story about judges’ rulings in two tax suits that, if upheld by the state Court of Appeals, could have dire consequences for libraries across the state.

In 2013, the courts sided with the plaintiffs, who opposed property tax increases in their counties. Library districts have for decades been following the 1979 law enacted by House Bill 44 that allows tax increases without a referendum as long as the increase doesn’t raise 4 percent more revenue than the year before. (Nelson County hasn’t had such a tax increase since 1990.) But the plaintiffs found an obscure 1964 law that says a library district created by a petition must submit all tax increases to the voters for their approval, and if it’s upheld, libraries could be compelled to refund taxpayers. In Nelson County’s case, if the board has to go all the way back to the 1990 referendum, it could mean a loss of 59 percent of the library’s funding. “We could survive,” Sharon Shanks, the local library director, told me, but the library would have to severely reduce services.

“For some libraries it would be total devastation,” she said.

That’s OK with Campbell County Commissioner Charlie Coleman, a tea party activist who supports the lawsuits. He told a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader:

“Libraries aren’t bad, but in lean financial times, you can’t be spending all your money on luxuries like libraries when you have other critical needs, like roads and jails.”

Luxuries?

Try telling the high school student who’s working on a research report on a Sunday afternoon at the library, or the job seeker who’s filling out an application using the library’s Wi-Fi because she doesn’t have Internet access at home that the library is a luxury. Tell the elderly person on a fixed income who can’t afford books, but who is still reading and learning, that libraries aren’t needed.

Nelson County’s library tax is currently 8.1 cents per $100 of assessed value. On a typical $70,000 home, that’s $1.09 a week, or as Shanks put it, “pennies on the hundred” for thousands of dollars worth of services that belong to and benefit the people of Nelson County.

That’s a pretty good public investment if you ask me.

I wonder whether, 20 years later, the Preacher would disagree.

Christmas is a season to count our blessings

Published Dec. 19, 2014

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …

Here in Kentucky, Christmas is more likely to be wet than white, but the meteorologists are predicting a big storm the morning of Dec.25, so one can only hope.

There’s something magical about snow — the crispness of the air, the way it carries scents like cedar and bourbon, the beauty of sunlight on a field of white.

Today is the first day of winter, and I don’t mind. I like all the seasons.

The Season of Advent, which is supposed to be a time to unwind and reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, is an impossibly busy time for newspaper people, as it is for retailers and many others.

As I take a few minutes to write this, I’m exhausted from back-to-back interviews and working well into the night, and I think I may be coming down with the flu.

I’m looking forward to the Christmas season, which goes from Christmas Eve until Epiphany (Jan. 6), so that I can finally get a little relief from the stress.

My family and I have rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and I can’t wait to visit Gatlinburg’s craft shops, drive through the scenic Smoky Mountains or just sit by the fire with a good book and a cup of coffee and enjoy the company of those to whom I’m closest, but separated from by distance.

Those are the things that matter most, and that we shouldn’t take for granted.

On the day I wrote this, I interviewed a young couple — Breanna Miller and Kevin Murray — who are staying in a homeless shelter in Bardstown. The woman was about to give birth any day to her fourth child. They had come to Bardstown because they wanted to be near Brianna’s other children, who live here with her mother, but there was no more room in the house, so almost as soon as they arrived, the couple were without a home until Bethany Haven took them in.

The same day they came to the shelter, they both got part-time jobs. Things are looking up for them, Kevin told me.

Brianna said she would enjoy having her children at Bethany Haven for Christmas.

Barry McGuffin, the shelter director, mentioned another family that had been sleeping in the woods until they came to the shelter, and a middle-aged man who has been sleeping in his truck.

For security reasons, Bethany Haven can’t take in single men, but the plight of this man, who has been living on the streets in Bardstown for months, has resulted in a flurry of activity on Facebook, and a local effort to find food and shelter for him.

Barry told me people here have raised hundreds of dollars to pay for a motel room for him for several nights, and others have provided gas cards and gift cards for food.

The same day I talked with the homeless couple, I was on the scene of a house fire. Kecia Copeland, a new city councilwoman, and her son, Joshua, who had recently rented the house in Wellington, were lucky to escape unharmed before the structure filled with smoke. They, too, may be without a place to call home for a while.

Someone wise, possibly the Scotsman Ian McLaren, said, “Let us be kind, one to another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.”

Those are words we should heed year-round, but especially at Christmas, when there is much to occupy our thoughts, and yet many who have it harder than we do.

My wish is that you have a Merry Christmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year, and that you spread tidings of comfort and joy to all you encounter during this time of peace and good will.

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