Commentary: Kentucky needs a new economic agenda

By Jason Bailey

Jason Bailey

When Kentuckians have made progress in the past — from improving our schools to expanding civil rights — we’ve come together around specific plans to build a better future. Making Kentucky’s economy thrive is a crucial goal we all share today.

But Kentuckians across our state see our economy falling short. Despite a declining unemployment rate ever since 2010, there aren’t enough jobs in our communities, and certainly not enough good jobs where wages are growing. We face significant challenges ranging from drug addiction to mass incarceration. Investment in vital public services is declining. And inequality is large and growing, including disparities based on race, gender and region that keep us apart.

At the same time, the policy ideas that have dominated the state debate in recent years would make many of those problems worse — by kicking people off health coverage, lowering wages for workers, reducing retirement security for public employees and cutting taxes for the wealthy. The dominant formula for what is falsely called “economic development”— a trickle down approach based on making Kentucky as cheap as possible for big corporations — just sets us further back.

It’s time for a robust discussion about what policies would actually work. We need new ideas that are backed by evidence and rise to meet the moment we are now in. Kentuckians are hungry for bold answers to the old problems facing our state.

To help spur that conversation, my organization, the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, released a new report that puts forward over 30 policy ideas. With “An Economic Agenda for a Thriving Commonwealth,” we seek to spur a conversation about the path forward.

When you look at the research on state growth, it’s clear: real economic development comes from the bottom up and the middle out. Our report details five strategies that get us there:

Improve job quality and economic security. Kentuckians need work to pay and support healthy, fulfilling lives. Better job quality helps families make ends meet and spurs stronger local economies when workers have more dollars in their pockets to spend. Ways to get there include raising the minimum wage, providing access to earned paid leave, creating a public option for retirement, protecting workers from misclassification and increasing pay equity.

Strengthen education for all Kentuckians. Investment in lifelong learning from high-quality early childhood education to affordable higher education will increase productivity and improve well-being. Kentucky should recommit to our K-12 classrooms after a decade of cuts, restore student supports like after-school programs, provide expanded access to preschool and child care, and offer tuition-free community college — or the same two year scholarship at a public four-year university — to every Kentucky student.

Build resilient, healthy communities. For a thriving economy to be possible, we need to directly attack what drags down our communities — from addiction to imprisonment to predatory lending — while increasing support for preventive solutions like primary care, healthy food and restorative justice. Specific policies include expanding access to affordable health coverage through a Medicaid buy-in public option, increasing support for community-based rather than institutional care, expanding access to drug treatment and mental health services, and reducing criminal penalties for low-level crimes.

Equip Kentucky for prosperity in the modern economy. Kentucky must update its physical, technological and financial infrastructure ranging from road and bridge repair to clean energy to broadband internet access. Policies include expanding public solutions to internet access, creating utility standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency, and lowering borrowing costs through a North Dakota-style state bank.

Clean up the tax code to invest in our commonwealth. We can pay for the above investments through savings they will achieve and by cleaning up our upside-down tax code to generate additional revenue. That will mean restoring a graduated income tax that asks those at the top to chip in, like exists in 32 other states, modernizing our tax system and ending a wide range of tax breaks that do not work.

By enacting policies that unlock the potential in Kentuckians, we can grow an economy that truly works — one of good jobs, strong communities and a higher quality of life. You can find our new report at

This post has been updated to correct the link above. Jason Bailey is executive director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy,