In Depth: Funding Cut For Kentucky Think Tank

by Rick Howlett on June 23, 2010

By Tony McVeigh, Kentucky Public Radio

Audio MP3

The clock is winding down on a Kentucky think tank that for almost 20 years has been helping state government plan for the future. 

The Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center was the brainchild of Vic Hellard, the first director of the Legislative Research Commission.  Approved by the 1992 General Assembly, the center – as defined in the enacting legislation – was created “as a catalyst to change the way decisions are made in government.”  It was charged with “taking into consideration the long-term implications of policy and critical trends and emerging issues.”  And for 18 years, that’s what it’s been doing – conducting studies, publishing comprehensive, often visionary reports and sponsoring public forums.

“To help both the governor and legislators, as well as the public, understand emerging trends and issues, so that we can get out front of some of these things that might be occurring and to really understand the long-term implications of some of our current policies,” says Michael Childress (pictured), who has headed the center since its creation.   

Childress says the center’s first major study, issued in 1994, warned of the coming decline of Kentucky’s burley tobacco industry.  He says, at the time, the report angered many people who didn’t agree with its findings, but the document not only proved prescient, but extremely beneficial.

 “There were groups that used the report that we produced to leverage grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund pilot programs on alternative crops,” said Childress.

 Over the years, the center has produced reports on broadband, industrial hemp, primary and secondary education, garbage collection, air quality, small business, nursing shortages, prescription drug abuse, and hundreds of other topics.  But in just a few days, the reports will cease – possibly forever.  Kentucky lawmakers this year eliminated funding for the center, at a savings to taxpayers of around $500,000.  Among those supporting the move is Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who says, in the age of the Internet, there’s no shortage of research material for lawmakers to study.

“It just became redundant in a very difficult economy,” said Thayer.  “And I think the taxpayers of Kentucky expected us to look at ways to trim all branches of government and this was one way that we chose to do that.”

“And I know some of the people on the Long Term Policy Research board,” continued Thayer.  “They’re good people and they should be thanked for their service to Kentucky, but we just can’t afford to have all these programs out there.” 

Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, who serves on the research center’s board, doesn’t necessarily agree.  He believes, even in tight budget times, long range planning is vital.

“It’s a small amount of money for the excellent work that the center did,” said Rollins.  “They did a great job for 20 years and I wanted to see it continue.”

Will the research center ever be revived?  Possibly.  The budget language says it’s being “suspended,” not abolished.  But Childress is moving on to a policy analysis position at the University of Kentucky.  As for all the reports issued by the center in the last 18 years, they will live on, on the Internet, at www.kltprc.net   In fact, Childress says a budget game on the website, in which the player pretends to be the governor and decides how to spend state dollars, remains quite popular.

“It gets used all the time,” said Childress.  “People download it from our website.  I know they use it in classes at the University of Kentucky.  And so, that stuff will still be there for people.”

But it’s the end of the road for the Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center, which runs out of money at the end of the month.

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