Opinion by Andy Brack
When President John F. Kennedy proposed putting a man on the moon, he didnâ€™t say it should be done â€œsomeday.â€ He put a time frame on his big vision â€” that it should be done by the end of the 1960s.
Such a big vision statement linked with a date for completion is something you might call a â€œmeasurable vision.â€ Last weekend, a group of more than two dozen southern leaders and thinkers set out to identify such visions for the South at a major conference at Davidson College in North Carolina.
The nonpartisan Center for a Better South called the conference to develop a new Agenda for a Better South â€” a pragmatic and progressive set of visions that southern leaders could seek to accomplish in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. (Disclosure: I am the chair and president of the center.)
Too often, southern leaders, particularly those in a legislature, are sidetracked by policy red herrings â€” things that are really non-issues compared to generational southern problems involving education, poverty and health care.
Many seem to find it easier to deal with gay marriage, abortion or gator-hunting rules than serious reforms that would change an unfair tax system or generate new and better jobs or fix health care. Instead of solutions for addressing big problems, many southern leaders today seem to kowtow to increasing partisanship and offer small sound bites for big problems to fill the mediaâ€™s daily craving for more.
Participants at the centerâ€™s conference included elected officials, corporate executives, newspaper editors, policy analysts and academics. They sought to look at these continuing problems in new ways that include measurable and attainable goals.
For example, instead of just saying southern states should improve education â€” and every one of them can stand for some improvement â€” participants linked improving education to jobs. As former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings touted more than 50 years ago, you canâ€™t get good jobs if your workforce isnâ€™t educated. And today, itâ€™s more important than ever before. Here, for example, is how the group challenged leaders to move forward in education:
â€œTo compete in a 21st century global economy, each southern state must increase its high school graduation rate and have 60 percent of native southerners and new residents with post-secondary degrees, including associateâ€™s degrees from technical colleges, by 2020.â€
Wow. Sixty percent would be huge. The international goal is something like 55 percent.
The Agenda for a Better South, which is in a draft stage for another week as participants hone their measurable visions, also calls for southern leaders to strive for these improvements:
Boosting wellness: Each southern state should increase life expectancy to levels on par with Canada.
Improving energy efficiency: Each southern state should develop a state energy plan that improves per capita energy efficiency by 20 percent in 2020.
Reforming taxes: Each southern state should adopt or change tax structures by 2015 that expand the tax base while lowering the rate to ensure revenue sources match or exceed the growth rate in the stateâ€™s overall economy.
Investing in infrastructure: Each southern state must invest 90 percent of its capital budget spending on priorities identified in its infrastructure capital planning process.
Cultivating governance: Each southern state should develop and implement a benchmark citizen trust survey by 2011. By 2015, each stateâ€™s levels of trust in state government should increase by 20 percent over the benchmark.
Ensuring opportunities: Southern states should reduce disparities in the treatment and well being of different groups to foster a more inclusive, creative, productive and prosperous South. By 2012, each southern state should adopt measures to drive significant reduction in identified disparities of at least five major categories.
Fostering safe communities: Each Ssuthern state should reduce the rates of violent crime to below the national average by 2020.
The South has come a long way in the last 50 years. It no longer is a showcase for segregation. It is home to major American businesses and millions of new residents who are thriving in the Sunbelt.
But the region remains burdened by its past in multiple measures of quality of life. Itâ€™s time for our leaders to think big by embracing a new Agenda for a Better South so our region is the envy of the world.
Andy Brack, publisher of S.C. Statehouse Report, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.