By John David Dyche
Kentucky remains at the wrong end of too many rankings of states in measures of education, health, and prosperity. The commonwealth occasionally makes modest, incremental improvements, but real progress requires bolder action.
Because Kentucky begins so far behind, and other states do not stand still, an aggressive agenda is imperative if we want to do more than merely keep up or make marginal gains. We must move on multiple fronts at the same time with unprecedented passion.
This will require fearless and imaginative leadership. We need leaders who can visualize a vastly better Kentucky and who will risk their political careers to turn that vision into reality.
Most politicians in Frankfort mean well. But very few are appropriately outraged at the mediocrity, or worse, in which Kentucky has been mired for all living memory.
Kentuckians should be shouting out their windows, as in the 1976 movie Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" But our state's public policy debates more often resemble a relaxed rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Part of the problem is people who have been in Frankfort too long. The public ought to demand term limits for state legislators. Yes, it takes time for lawmakers to develop expertise, but past a certain point experience makes them too comfortable and is counterproductive.
We should also move the filing deadline for legislative races to after the General Assembly ends. That way citizens can evaluate their legislators' most recent performance before deciding whether to run against them or urge someone else to do so.
Kentucky is also too slow to adopt ideas that have worked elsewhere. It is obvious to anyone observing successful states that ours should immediately be moving from an income tax to a sales tax, including on many services, and adopting a debt limit.
Equally apparent is that we should abolish or reform teacher tenure, implement merit pay for teachers, and permit charter schools in order to improve education. A right to work law, elimination of prevailing wage requirements, and tort reform would obviously make the state more business-friendly, competitive, and prosperous.
We need more reform of burdensome public pensions to transform them into 401K-style plans like most private sector workers have. There should also be complete transparency so taxpayers can see the true extent of these expensive obligations.
Instead of lamenting Kentucky's constitutional ban on gay marriage, supporters of equality ought to push for civil unions equivalent to marriage in all but name. It also makes sense to move toward decriminalization of marijuana for reasons of both economic development and perhaps deterring potentially vulnerable populations from more dangerous drugs like meth and pain pills.
Major environmental initiatives might include a mountaintop removal mining ban, stricter enforcement of clean air and water rules, tougher penalties on illegal dumping and run-of-the-mill littering, and incentives for sensible land use planning. Businesses built on intellectual capital are more likely to locate somewhere that is beautiful, green, healthy, and socially progressive.
Such a dramatic, multi-front assault against backwardness may not be possible within the template of the entrenched two-party system. But it would sure be inspiring to see someone at least try.
Although he became a caricature, Kentuckians nonetheless respected, and perhaps even loved, the late Gatewood Galbraith for taking on the establishment. A more credible kindred spirit could actually succeed.
Leadership alone is not enough, however. Change of magnitude Kentucky cries out for must come from the people. Kentuckians will get the government they demand and deserve.
John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.