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November 20, 2007

Bluegrass Beacon: Mine eyes have not seen the glory, but I’ve heard about it

Now that Steve Beshear has stopped campaigning, he’s going to have to start articulating — about his plans to address serious challenges facing Kentucky’s economy and public schools. The new governor must successfully transition from campaigning against an unpopular incumbent to working for sound policy that improves the lot of all Kentuckians. That means the interests of labor unions, social liberals and other special groups must become secondary to the betterment of the entire commonwealth.If not, it will be “four and out” for Beshear, too.His campaign yielded few specifics, beyond offering a prayer and hope that legislators and citizens might go along with expanded casino gambling. At this point, the former lieutenant governor’s plan to “move this state forward” — his favorite campaign cliché — remains an enigma. Beshear does get credit for some of his team “signings,” including naming former Lt. Gov. Steve Pence to his transition team. Some in the Republican establishment fume at Pence, but I applaud him. I think we need more politicians willing to take principled stands — even if it angers partisans who dream only of running a political machine. But Kentucky doesn’t need more politics. It needs bold leadership — something Beshear missed an opportunity to demonstrate during the campaign. It needs new ideas, but the governor-elect didn’t venture much beyond platitudes and generalities — even while campaigning with a big lead. Political pundits warn against taking chances when polls show a candidate is a lock. But visionaries put bold ideas on the table — despite mercurial poll numbers and an opponent shackled with scandal. In fact, a willingness to do that attracts undecided voters and even those from the other party. If Beshear really wants bipartisan success — to which he pays energetic verbal homage — he would do well to consider the success of another former governor, Ronald Reagan.Reagan didn’t attract a multitude of “crossover” voters by playing it safe in his presidential campaigns. Rather, he offered a simple but bold agenda — beef up the military, melt government fat and cut taxes. Friend and foe recognized the vision. And while Democrats didn’t always agree with him, enough of them voted for him in 1984 to give him a victory in 49 states with the largest number of electoral votes in history.Candidates who embrace platitudes too often become mediocre governors who find genteel niceties a safe modus operandi. Effective leaders shun the fluff and attack the challenges.Beshear now leads one of the poorest states in America. The Tax Foundation reports that only eight states in the nation sported a lower per-capita income in 2006 than Kentucky’s $31,639. Per-capita income is a critical metric in determining what kind of jobs Kentuckians have.  And they’re not the best jobs, says University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes. “We’re not getting enough of the higher-end jobs,” Coomes says. “We move the boxes but don’t design the products in those boxes or manage the operations. We assemble the cars but don’t design them.” All but one of the states surrounding Kentucky offers substantially higher incomes. Ohio’s per-capita income in 2006 was $4,415 higher than Kentucky’s. Only West Virginia’s was lower — and not by much. It’s been this way for the last 60-plus years. In 1945, Kentucky’s per-capita income was $803 — $434 behind the national median and good enough for a No. 45 ranking among states. So, how many governors have promised to “move this state forward” during the intervening decades? Since Beshear likes gambling, I’ll bet that all of them did. And their promises moved Kentucky forward from No. 45 in 1945 to No. 42 last year — in six decades of “leadership.” So, we don’t need to hear more about “moving this state forward” or, better yet, “upward.” We need to see someone do it. Jim Waters is the director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. You can read previously published columns at www.bipps.org. Contact him at jwaters@bipps.org