RIP Lowell Reese

Lowell Reese was a journalist who cared deeply about the rules that governed the game. His decades in journalism, his sharp mind, and his kind heart all contributed to his engaged, deep, often meticulous data-driven reporting on politics and policy.

More than that, Lowell Reese was a helpful, generous friend to anyone who wanted to understand practical politics on a deeper level. He gave me important information that drove my studies into Kentucky’s pension system, for which I wrote more than a little bit. In the process of writing on this subject, there weren’t many people to talk to, and Lowell Reese was absolutely invaluable as I tried to understand the ground-level realities of the incentives that drive Kentucky’s pension plans.

I came to know Lowell well while working for the Bluegrass Institute, directing the group’s platform to track lawmakers’ daily activities in Frankfort.

It’s fun to remember how energizing Lowell was to me, Chris Derry, and Jim Waters as we worked to get the project off the ground and bring that all-important daily rundown of lawmakers’ votes to the public for free. His enthusiasm for the project played out through introductions to helpful lawmakers, helpful staff at the Legislative Research Commission and the various people who had either pull or knowledge to help us move the project forward. I can never thank him enough for so gleefully giving me access to his network.

When I moved to Frankfort to run the project throughout the legislative session and write for Kentucky Gazette, Lowell revealed himself to be a great friend, as well. Always interested in what I knew and freely giving of what he knew, we held occasional meetings in the maddeningly beautiful office behind his home. It was, I recall, the perfect perch for an independent journalist: a life’s work on the walls and a relaxed, engaged journalist behind the desk.

The big issue toward the end of Lowell’s life was pension transparency. You’d be forgiven for thinking this meant he was concerned only about abuses perpetrated by Wall Street profiteers on the poor, defenseless managers of billion-dollar pension funds. Private equity’s appeal to pension managers is a big problem, to be sure, and Lowell was concerned about it, but for him this was at most half of the problem associated with a lack of transparency in pension finance.

Lowell was also intensely concerned with the manner in which individual public sector workers could make relatively minor adjustments in their working lives to trigger massive pension payouts. He made various estimates of how a little-known bill, HB 299, passed in 2005, would allow some Kentucky lawmakers to make a few key moves with respect to their employment and pensions to increase their lifetime wealth by a million dollars or more.

It’s a bigger issue than just lawmakers, of course, and the kind of data detailing the size of pension payouts and and various decisions that balloon pensions is also still shrouded in mystery. But thanks in no small part to Lowell Reese, that issue is on the table like never before.

Only since Kentucky Gazette published his obituary have I learned that Lowell was apparently an active Republican campaigner. Personality driven politics were rarely a part of our discussions. What made Lowell interesting to me was his own interest in the consequences of ideas and appropriateness of rules.

Here’s more from Kentucky Gazette and more from Jim Waters, and some more precise details of his later projects with the Bluegrass Institute.

Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center May Close

Here’s how Kentucky’s state government attempted to sell the construction of the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center way back in 2003-04:

Excitement is in the air as Pike County anticipates the limitless opportunities arising with the completion of the Eastern Kentucky Exposition Center. Situated in the center of downtown Pikeville, the Center is under construction with an anticipated completion in 2004. During construction, the $29 million project will have an estimated $30 million annual economic impact on the county and will create approximately 130 jobs.

Can you feel the excitement?! Well, it turns out that the center is about to close because of, get this, “lack of funding.” Apparently, having the state build and own the project wasn’t quite the boost that the operators thought it would be. To be fair, none of these people saw it coming. Let’s get some inconvenient truths out of the way that were brushed aside when those same people were pushing hard for the arena’s construction:

  • The East (or Eastern) Kentucky Expo Center has a seating capacity larger than Pikeville’s population.
  • When local officials were selling the idea to the public and state lawmakers, they predicted that the arena would compete with Louisville and Nashville for conventions.
  • Huntington, WV sits 50 miles east of Pikeville which is a more natural venue for any of the concerts that Pikeville claims its arena could attract.
  • The Bluegrass Institute’s Joel Peyton reported in 2005 or 2006 (the article linked is missing the publication date) that Pike County “Deputy Judge-Executive Karen Sue Ratliff told reporters that the county does not own the center and cannot afford to pay the cost of operating it.”

So the question has to be asked: Exactly why did no one expect precisely this kind of failure? From the Herald-Leader story:

Meanwhile, county officials are urging the state to take over more of the operation costs of the state-owned convention center and arena that opened in 2005.

The arena “is in danger of shutting its doors for good because of lack of funding,” Pike Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford wrote in a letter to Gov. Steve Beshear on Nov. 29.

No, Mr. Rutheford. The arena is in danger of shutting its doors because there was never a market large enough to support it.

Here’s a modest solution for Kentucky to save some money. In exchange for giving the arena to Pike County (for free!), the Commonwealth of Kentucky will receive the naming rights to the facility: “Kentucky Public Works Failure #1.”

Innes in WaPo

The Bluegrass Institute’s Richard Innes, Kentucky’s most credible and hardest working expert on education policy, was cited in the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet today.