HAZARD — For the second time since he was elected governor last November, Matt Bevin visited Hazard on Feb. 12 to engage citizens of the region. A crowd, consisting of local government officials, media representatives and the general public, funnelled into HCTC’s First Federal Center to hear the governor speak. Bevin touted the event as an opportunity to address Southeast Kentucky’s economic future amidst turmoil in the coal industry, and his appearance came on the heels of Pine Branch Coal’s recent announcement of more than 150 layoffs to be expected in April.
For many, this was their first opportunity to meet HCTC’s newly appointed interim president, Dr. Juston Pate. Dr. Pate welcomed the governor and greeted the audience. He spoke of unity between the community and the college and he urged citizens to utilize the many beneficial resources the college has to offer.
“The future of the workforce is technology,” Pate said, “You can find that training here. You can become relevant here.”
HCTC was a major area of emphasis among the people who spoke during the event, including Bevin. Although Bevin made several attempts to instill within miners a feeling of assurance for brighter days in the coalfields after President Obama’s exit from the White House next year, while also presenting himself as a pro-coal governor, he stopped short of promising a rebound in coal jobs, even after a change of presidents has occurred. He also stopped short of pledging a sizeable increase in state funds pouring into the area. Instead, Bevin focused on the appeal the strong backs and unwavering stamina of Central Appalachia’s workforce should have with job providers throughout the nation, and he spent much time encouraging former coal miners to seek training in other vocational fields, one of which was cosmetology, using the college as the guidepost for their training.
When Gov. Bevin’s time to take over the podium arrived, Sen. Brandon Smith was granted the honor of introducing him to the applauding crowd. Bevin shared accounts of his life growing up in a small town as part of a family that, according to Bevin, struggled with poverty. At one point, Bevin talked about eating government cheese at a friend’s house, when he was a boy, and later asking his father why they never had any government cheese at their home, to which his father replied, “Because you never take something that you didn’t earn.” Then Bevin challenged the audience members to apply that same motto, “never take something that you didn’t earn,” to their own lives as they face financial tribulations.
Bevin also illustrated the impact weakening local economies have on the state’s economy as a whole. Fiscal responsibility, by tightening the reigns on what he considers to be wasteful budgetary spending, was one of Bevin’s primary messages.
“Our state is in severe financial trouble,” Bevin said. “We are in dire, dire trouble.”
Gov. Bevin also talked about his disapproval of federal policies and E.P.A. regulations. When speaking of President Obama, Bevin said, “This fall can’t get here fast enough if you ask me.” In his comments involving the E.P.A. Gov. Bevin said, “We send tax money to Washington and then they give it to the E.P.A. so they can come down here and bribe us with our own money to go stick it to ourselves.”
Bevin blamed the Obama Administration and the E.P.A. for the devastation of the Appalachian coal industry, and he pointed out that the decline of coal production has also threatened other industries state-wide.
“Why do you think Ford, G.E. and Toyota want to come to Kentucky?” Bevin asked, “It’s because the energy is cheaper here. And why is the energy cheaper here? It’s because of coal.”
Gov. Bevin invited members of the audience to present their questions and comments. Former coal miners delivered stories about the financial difficulties life after coal can create for local families and urged the governor to further pursue the proposed release of abandoned mine funds through Congressman Hal Roger’s RECLAIM Act, which is aimed at assisting economic development in Appalachian communities that are suffering because of coal’s decline. Bevin’s response to working with Rep. Rogers on projects to benefit East Kentucky was an indication of unity between the two political heavyweights regarding issues surrounding mountain communities.
“This has to pass in the U.S. Congress,” Bevin said of the RECLAIM Act, “One of the ways that he (Hal Rogers) is going to be able to make the case for that is if we have projects that show an immediate return on investments for the initial dollars. He and I are working together on that. It is my intent to come up with, working with him and others in the community, where we can put a seed in the ground that will flourish and show that more seeds will do more of the same.“
The SOAR initiative was mentioned by Gov. Bevin as a project he supports and wants to see continue with success, but he gave no indication as to how much funding will come along with his support. The new fiber-optic broadband plan that was recently proposed by Hal Rogers and Steve Beshear for Eastern Kentucky was also mentioned as a project Bevin will support, although he suggested that the depth of the state funding for the plan might not equal the amount originally projected. Regardless of the possible funding cuts, Bevin assured the crowd that the Eastern Kentucky phase of the broadband project will still move forward. When Perry County Clerk Haven King pinpointed an expansion of the Hal Rogers Parkway as a vital means of stimulating economic growth in the region, Bevin talked of the high cost associated with building roads across the mountains, but he said there is a new highway that can span over the terrain with no trouble at all, and the new highway he spoke of is the internet, which is a hint that future plans for economic development in coal country consist largely of trying to recruit jobs that involve new computer technology.
Commonwealth Attorney John Hansen asked Bevin to promote the local workforce to companies like Ford and Apple in an effort to attract those corporations to further expand their enterprises here in the mountain region.
“Let people know we can work at anything,” Hansen said from the audience, “We are a competitive labor force. Tell people about us. Tell Ford; tell Apple; tell G.E.; tell them about our workforce.”
Other audience members addressed the governor with comments that covered issues ranging from the drug epidemic to job creation and tourism. Bevin responded to each citizen.
“The answer again is going to be, how do we find the opportunity,” Bevin said of job creation, “You should not have to go to Richmond or somewhere else to get a job. But it isn’t a function of just snapping your fingers. A lot of people think, well, just bring jobs here. I don’t have that ability. What I do have the ability to do is try to create an environment where this is the place where people want to come. And I can do that through things like tax structure.”
Analysis of ways Gov. Bevin’s tax structure might affect Southeast Kentucky was not given. However, Bevin stressed his belief that taxing, or taking away from, the wealthy is not the right route to choose because, according to Bevin, such a practice will only cause wealthy corporations to avoid expanding in Kentucky.
Bevin was not alone on his journey to Hazard. Two of the governor’s daughters joined him for the trip, as did Bevin’s newly appointed secretary of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet, Charles Snavely, who is a native of Prestonsburg. Snavely spoke to the audience.
“We’re going to have to diversify,” said Snavely, “We’ve all talked about that. There are limitations on what we can do competitively to re-energize the coal industry itself.”
Bevin wanted spectators to know that he intentionally picked a Southeast Kentucky native, who has experience in the coal industry, as his Secretary of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet.
“I chose him because he’s a coal man,” claimed Bevin.
Although Bevin demonstrated a strong desire to familiarize the crowd with Snavely’s connection to coal, neither he nor Snavely provided an estimate of what improvements, if any, the local economy could expect in the next four years, even with a swift change in Washington policy. In fact, Snavely identified diversification as the absolute necessity for coal mining communities, while the governor eluded to the idea that an economic rebound by Southeast Kentucky towns will depend on the towns themselves rising to the challenge rather than increased government spending, and he delivered strict calls for action to mountain people.
“You own this community,” Bevin exclaimed, “You own your future. You’re descended a few generations from the people who were the boldest people in America.”
State Rep. Fitz Steele, who was seated on stage, along with Sen. Brandon Smith, beside Bevin during the event, spoke with the Hazard Herald after Bevin left the podium.
“I am a coal miner,” Steele said, “I worked in coal for years, probably right alongside a lot of the guys who listened to this meeting. There aren’t many guys in Frankfort who came there straight off of the mines. I know what our coal workers are going through every day because I’ve lived it. They are the reason I wanted to go to Frankfort and fight; fight for our rights here in the mountains. I’ve never missed a coal rally, and I have always stood by their side. It’s been tough for our people these past few years because it seems like the world is against us, but even with all of the resistance we’ve seen, I’ve fought to get road improvements going; I’ve sponsored legislation on the floor to try and get every bit of the money that is rightfully ours; and I’ll keep fighting. What we have seen today from the people is that they are ready and willing to fight too. We can turn this thing around together.”
An abundance of issues that are facing the people of Perry County were discussed at the event, which was promoted as a town hall meeting. Matt Bevin has at least the entirety of his first term to devote as much energy as he chooses to relieving the strains the economies of coal communities suddenly find themselves under. Bevin’s second venture to Hazard, within the first quarter of a year following his election, was met with plenty of feedback from the populous he strived to engage. The people displayed an overall attitude of hope mixed with concern for their futures, as well as gratitude, and a plethora of pleas for action, which were extended unto their governor.
Sam Neace can be reached at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.