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Combs praises county’s prison effort



They say it takes years of hard work to become an overnight success, and nowhere is that more true than last week’s news that our region is finally poised to become home to a nearly half billion-dollar federal prison and 300 new fulltime jobs.

For more than a decade now, a core group of leaders has refused to let any obstacle stand in its way of getting to this point. Their foresight and dedication were absolutely crucial, and I was proud to join with them when I was elected as state representative in 2006.

Those leaders include such people as Elwood Cornett, whose work chairing the Letcher County Planning Commission was instrumental in convincing federal officials that our region was truly the best location.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers should be commended as well for his dedication and tireless advocacy. As chair of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, he was in a perfect position to navigate this project through Washington.

The people of Letcher County and the surrounding areas deserve the most praise, because none of this would have been possible without their strong support.

In my work leading the Kentucky House’s Budget Review Subcommittee on Transportation, and as Letcher County’s state representative, I have done what I could to make sure state government played its role as well. That includes budgeting almost $1 million for paving and upgrading the old South-East Coal Company Road at Tolson, which will be a key route to the prison.

The task for us ahead is to prepare for the positive impact of this “overnight success.” These new jobs — the temporary ones needed for construction and the permanent ones to operate the prison — will present opportunities and challenges alike. This good news doesn’t erase the losses we have seen in the coal industry, but it is a positive step forward that is certainly worth celebrating.

Speaking of coal, it was a major topic of discussion last week during the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee’s meeting. More than a half-dozen coal county judge/executives, including Letcher County’s Jim Ward, were there to advocate for a greater share of the coal severance tax.

For decades now, the state and coal counties have split this revenue about equally, but this money has dropped significantly since 2011. Monthly totals that topped $20 million five years ago are now less than $9 million, a number we haven’t seen in at least two decades. Counties are receiving 80 to 90 percent less than they were before the start of the national recession in 2008.

Those of us who live here have seen firsthand just how devastating this has been. This relatively rapid decline is cutting into our fire, police and ambulance budgets and is scaling back our road departments and senior citizens services, just to name a few.

I have been working for several years to change the funding formula so that our coal counties get a larger share. The state’s overall economy is seeing a return to more normal growth, so now appears to be the ideal time to begin making this a reality. It will take time to fully accomplish our goal, but there is reason to believe we can start that process in the upcoming budget. Based on the support I heard from my fellow Appropriations and Revenue Committee members, the Kentucky House is at least ready to do its part.

The chamber will vote on its budget proposal within the next two weeks, and a final version should be on the governor’s desk by the end of March. We will know soon, then, if our efforts are successful. For our region, I hope we are.

The legislative session now has less than two-dozen working days remaining, and a lot of major decisions are still to be made. That means your input is more important than ever.

If you would like to join the hundreds who have already contacted me, my address is Room 373C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, Ky., 40601; or you can email me at Leslie. Combs@lrc.ky.gov.

To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800- 372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.

I hope to hear from you soon.



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