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Kentucky in the 1990s


Governors Bert T. Combs
Governors Bert T. Combs

In the last half of the 20th century, the state’s politics overall were somewhat divided. The Democrats won all the legislative majorities and all the elections for governor (except one) from 1946 through the 1990s, while Republicans carried more presidential contests and held the U.S. Senate seats more often than Democrats. Outstanding in this regard was Republican John Sherman Cooper, a champion of civil rights and the United Nations (UN), who often bolted party lines to support progressive legislation. He represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate for 21 years (1946-1949, 1952-1955, 1956-1973). In the 1960s Kentucky was one of the targets of the “War on Poverty” program of President Lyndon Johnson: It received federal funds aimed at improving conditions in depressed states.

In 1960 the state’s per capita income was only 71 percent of the national average. In 1970 it was the last of all the states in the number of school years its adults had completed: an average of 9.9 years compared to a national average of 12.1. These are indications of the problems in the state’s economy at the time it began making the transition from an agricultural and mining base to a manufacturing one. As a result of that transition, Kentucky’s recent economic fortunes tie it more to electronics, machinery, textiles, and the metal and chemical industries. Kentucky is, for instance, the nation’s fourth leading producer of motor vehicles. Ashland Oil, Brown-Forman, and Humana became important components of the state’s economic life. Governors Bert T. Combs and Edward T. Breathitt, Jr., in the 1960s began to develop the state’s educational system to support the needs of the new economy, but funding over succeeding years never reached needed long-term levels.

Ernie Fletcher
Ernie Fletcher

That deficiency culminated in a state Supreme Court decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education, Inc., 1989, invalidating the entire educational system. Kentucky at that time stood near the bottom in national levels of educational attainment. In response, the legislature in 1990 passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), which brought national attention to the state. Kentucky was, in effect, starting all over again. That accomplishment was unfortunately overshadowed at times by a political scandal in 1992 that brought convictions to some 15 current or former state legislators. Known as BOPTROT—for the Business, Organizations and Professions committee of the legislature (where the investigation began) and trotting (the horse-racing sport that was the original focus of the investigation)—the investigation was the impetus for the passage of ethics laws, fostered by Democratic Governor Brereton C. Jones, to prevent a recurrence. When Kentucky celebrated its bicentennial of statehood in 1992, it could look back at remarkable growth. From 73,677 in 1790, the population had boomed to 2,147,174 by 1900. Growth slowed in the 20th century, going over the 3 million mark with 3,038,156 in 1960, and in 1990 stood at 3,685,296, 23rd among the states and fourth in the percentage of native-born.

At the beginning of the 21st century Kentucky’s population continued to grow with an estimated 4,092,891 people in 2002, but it also declined relative to other states, ranking 25th in population that year. A statewide shift toward the Republican Party continued with the election in 2003 of Ernie Fletcher as Kentucky’s first Republican governor since 1967. Incumbent Democratic governor Paul Patton, who was prohibited by law from seeking a third consecutive term, faced ethics charges resulting from an extramarital affair, and the scandal reportedly carried over to tarnish the campaign of the Democratic candidate.

Fletcher was himself dogged by political scandal, however, leading to his defeat in November 2007 when he sought a second term. Democrat Steve Beshear returned the state house to the Democratic Party, running a campaign that focused on Fletcher’s effort to give state jobs to political allies. "Kentucky" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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