“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know we have to diversify the economy.”

The latest issue of LEO Weekly, a news magazine out of Louisville, features a cover story on the coal severance tax. “Reclaiming Kentucky,” by Willie Davis, explores the questions so many of us have been asking for some time: what is the best use of the severance tax? What’s next for the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky? The article begins, as so many articles on the subject have done lately, with the now-notorious decision to use $2.5 million of severance funds for the renovation of Rupp Arena, but then goes further:

Ultimately, however, this story isn’t just about Rupp Arena. Two-and-a-half-million dollars is pocket change compared to what the renovation will cost. What’s more interesting is the debate that has followed. It shows that no matter how often we address this issue, we are operating on outdated assumptions about coal, about poverty and about the future of rural Kentucky. Right now, there are billions of dollars that the coal companies have paid that could be used to help poor counties and hire laid-off miners. The bulk of that money is simply not being spent. The problem isn’t that some of that money goes to Rupp Arena; it’s that so little of that money goes to where it is supposed to go.

…[Carrie Ray] stresses the need for urgency. “With the coal industry in significant decline in the region, severance money is not going to be around forever, so we need to be planning for the future. Well, we needed to be planning for the future 20 years ago, but we absolutely can’t wait any longer. Severance funds are a significant source of resources that are intended for economic development and diversification in the coalfields. We just aren’t spending them that way.”

“I don’t know what the future of Eastern Kentucky holds,” says Matt Jones. “But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know we have to diversify the economy.”

The article also mentions an often-overlooked source of funds: the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund. This money must go toward remediation of old mine sites, but that could easily be a source of jobs – someone has to do that reclamation work, and miners already have many of the needed skills. Frustratingly, those funds are very difficult to access, as Sen. Greg Stumbo says in the article:

“It’s almost impossible for anyone in Eastern Kentucky to get their hands on that money,” says Stumbo. “Congress has kept that money bottled up for 30 years. It’s the hardest money to access … If I knew the answer to (why), I’d probably be the smartest man in America.”

Stumbo points out that the jobs theoretically created by reclamation are jobs miners are uniquely qualified to do. “Most miners can do darn near anything,” he says. “They have to run equipment. They have a great skill-set.”

Though Louisville is far from Appalachia – geographically and culturally – it has a big stake in the future of the region: as a state, we’re all in this together. When one region suffers, so does the rest of the state. Davis ends his piece with a provocative statement: “No one denies there’s a need for jobs, no one denies there is local talent, and most agree that Appalachian coal has helped build the nation. Now people have to decide if Appalachia is worth renovating.”

Well, there are plenty of folks in Appalachia and beyond who aren’t waiting for other people to make that decision – they’re already in action.