Friday, April 27, 2012

Endowment funded by severance-tax hike, and more broadband, would help Eastern Ky., leaders say

Ideas about how to transform the economy of Eastern Kentucky were discussed at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Prestonsburg yesterday. The region contains the largest cluster of Appalachian counties that the federal government classifies as economically distressed. Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports some ideas included a severance-tax hike to fund a permanent endowment for projects in coal counties, improved access to broadband Internet, clean water for every resident, and growing biomass for energy on former surface-mine sites.

Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, said setting up the permanent endowment fund could help replace dwindling funds from the state's coal severance tax. The fund would stay in place, earning interest, with portions being used for economic and other programs each year. The state currently spends all coal severance money it receives, and in a MACED report, it's estimated the tax receipts from Eastern Kentucky will drop through the mid-2020s. If Kentucky raised the tax to 5.5 percent from 4.5, as West Virginia has done, it could create more than $700 million in a fund by 2035, the report shows.

Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis said new economic ideas are necessary because of the projected sharp decline in coal production in Central Appalachia, which maintains many jobs that "underpin" the region's economy, Estep reported. Davis said improving broadband access "would be a critical component in areas such as improving the economy, education and in keeping people abreast of changes in health care," Estep reports. Davis added that "we're still a long way from having the competitive infrastructure in our area." (Read more)

In North Carolina, the state's money from the national tobacco settlement is being used to extend rural broadband service by fiber-optic lines. For a press release on the project, click here.

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