In the 25 years we’ve spent watching state and local government, we’ve found ourselves mourning more than a few terrific programs and organizations that have fallen by the wayside. Their demise is sometimes due to cyclical budgetary downturns; sometimes to death blows exerted by powerful political foes. We number among the inhabitants of our virtual government graveyard the Oregon Progress Board, Florida’s Commission on Government Accountability, the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center and, of course, the much mourned U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
But it’s mostly the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center that’s on our minds right now. In the years when we were evaluating government management and performance, we often praised the Center for doing what so many governments didn’t do – think about the future. Today we want to praise it one more time with a posthumous pat on the back, based on a report we recently read about Kentucky’s path away from dependency on tobacco products to a much more diversified economic base.
According to an article written by Rebecca Hanchett for the Kentucky 2016 Interim Legislative Record last summer, in 1998, tobacco delivered about 25 percent of the state’s farm cash receipts and was grown by 46,000 farmers. Today it accounts for about 6 percent, involving about 4,500 farmers. This doesn’t mean that agriculture receipts themselves are down. They’re at record levels. But the Commonwealth made some good decisions around the turn of the century to use its tobacco master settlement money to diversify crops. At a Southern Legislative Conference last summer, representatives of several other southern states were chagrined. “They wish they’d done what we we’d done,” said Warren Beeler, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Agricultural Policy.
Of course, we can’t directly connect the Long-Term Research Center’s excellent 1994 report about the shakiness of tobacco dependency on the decisions that legislative leaders later made. But it certainly did add important elements to the discussion and got leaders talking.
We asked Michael Childress what he thought. Childress is currently research associate for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business. He was executive director of the long-term policy research center from 1993 until its demise in 2010.
“It’s impossible for me to definitively connect the dots linking this report to the manner in which the tobacco settlement funds were distributed. I believe that I can say that the report, without question, got decision makers talking about the challenges facing Kentucky’s tobacco industry in a way they did not previously. It was as if many knew that the emperor had no clothes, but were afraid to say so publicly. This report, and the accompanying media attention it garnered, provided the political cover that apparently was necessary for state leaders to begin the public dialogue about a post-tobacco rural economy.”
We wish the Kentucky Long-Term Policy Research Center still existed and we wish more governments had organizations like this.