In this year’s primary election, Eastern Kentucky was in the spotlight, mainly because of how badly both of the men chosen to represent their respective political parties in the November general election for governor did here.
Neither incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin nor his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, performed well at the polls east of Winchester and it pointed to some disconnections between the electorate throughout the state.
So it comes as no surprise that Eastern Kentucky, and, to a degree, rural western Kentucky, were in the spotlight again this past week as Gov. Matt Bevin made a campaign promise that, if he’s re-elected and reaches next year’s budgeting process in a position of power, that he will change the current process of coal severance allocation to ensure that 100 percent of the fund is returned to coal counties.
We are very much in favor of that idea, regardless of who proposes it. Over past years, the amount of coal severance returned to the counties from which the coal was mined was split 50-50 with the state as soon as it hit Frankfort’s coffers, with half of the fund immediately going to the state’s general fund.
And there’s no doubt that fund has dwindled over past years as coal mining has fallen on tough times. However, just as a matter of perspective, according to the Office of the State Budget Director, from July 1, 2018 (the beginning of the fiscal year) through May, the state reported collecting a total of $84 million.
So, even as coal mining falls on hard times, the money is still there, still being collected and could still make a massive change for communities that are searching for any lifeline to help re-establish a sustainable economy. So, it definitely matters.
Does action need to be taken toward returning more, if not all, of the coal severance taxes collected back to the coal-producing counties? Yes. Can Bevin get it done? That’s a bit more in question.
Here’s why — Matt Bevin, whether he’s governor or holds any other role in state government, cannot unilaterally return the coal severance to the counties.
Next year’s session of the legislature will be a budget session and the beginning of that process will be either Bevin or Beshear presenting their budget to the legislature for consideration. The House will then begin the process of deal-making, compromise and change until the budget is in a form that can gain enough support to pass.
Then, it will go to the Senate, where the same process of deal-making, compromise and change will take place until that body can come to a final agreement on a budget. Then it goes back to the House for final approval, or, in the case of a stalemate, it can bounce back and forth for quite some time as negotiations occur.
Could a measure to return the coal severance to coal counties survive this process? Possibly.
But history tells a different story. According to Kentucky Legislative Research Commission documentation, a similar measure has been proposed by members of either the Senate or House, or both, each year since Bevin was elected. None of those measures, whether they were put forth by the minority Democrats or majority Republicans, ever made it out of the Appropriations and Revenue committee of the body into which it was introduced.
While Eastern Kentucky’s legislators are nearly united in the belief, as evidenced by their votes and legislative proposals, that the coal severance should be sent back, it’s quite obvious that their colleagues don’t quite have the same conclusion.
We’re glad some attention’s being drawn to this, but at the same time, we’re remaining fairly skeptical about its prospects.
Even if Bevin is re-elected and follows through with his plan, we’re concerned that a heavily-divided legislature could easily sound the death knell for such a proposal. Sure, it’s worth a shot.
However, maybe as we continue to work to diversify our local economies, we should look elsewhere for funding for the near future.
Perhaps the state will one day be amenable to the proposal, however, we believe that day will be when the fund has dwindled to the point where it’s no longer a lucrative prospect for raising money for the state’s general fund.
And, considering this area’s contributions to the state in both economic and human costs, that’s a shame.