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Lawmaker draws comparisons to other states

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One of the more persistent challenges state leaders face from year to year is determining just how well Kentucky measures up against its sister states. We need to know where we stand before we decide in which direction we should move.

Fortunately, an annual publication known simply as “State Rankings” serves as a pretty good guide. It’s filled with nothing more than hundreds of tables pulled from numerous sources that compare the 50 states in areas ranging from health and public safety to agriculture and education. Some are predictable, while others are much more obscure.

Consider the number of sunny days in a year: With 57 percent of the calendar showing blue skies in the Commonwealth, we’re tied for 31st with Illinois, Maine, and Maryland. The other days, however, aren’t as nice; only seven other states in 2009 – the year of the historic winter storm – saw more damage from hazardous weather.

In terms of population, our 4.33 million people is 26th among the states, making us a little bigger than Oregon but a little smaller than Louisiana. Geographically, we’re 37th when measuring the number of square miles, sandwiched appropriately enough between Tennessee and Indiana.

When it comes to agriculture, the rankings confirm that we’re blessed in a variety of ways. Only four states have more farms than we do, and we rank in the top 20 in several commodities, including horses, tobacco, soybeans, corn and chickens. We’re also the biggest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River.

Energy-wise, we provide more than our fair share as well. We’re third in coal production, and because our job market skews heavily toward manufacturers who require a lot of power, it’s understandable that we’re seventh when measuring the amount of energy used per person.

Economically, we have some definite advantages as well. We were one of only three states to see growth in personal income from 2008 to 2009; we had the sixth best job-growth rate from 2009 to 2010; and this year our state business tax climate is 19th. Because of reasons like these, we have six Fortune 500 companies based here, which is better than almost 30 other states.

Since we have two of the nation’s leading military bases, it’s no surprise that we also do well in when it comes to our role in keeping the United States safe. We had a little more than 43,000 active-duty personnel stationed here in 2009 – the seventh highest total among the states – and we were seventh as well in the percentage of domestic spending by the U.S. Department of Defense.

When it comes to quality of life, we tend to see more people marry – we ranked 11th in 2009 – and divorce more as well; we’re seventh there. Obesity, cancer, heart disease and deaths by accident are concerns when compared to other states. We’re at the top of the list when it comes to adults who smoke, but 46th when it comes to alcohol consumption.

We are above the national average in the number of registered nurses but just a little below it in the number of dentists. We also do better than more than half of the states in the percentage of businesses that offer health insurance.

When it comes to education, our fourth graders test better in reading than all but 10 other states, and eighth graders are 19th. We are right at the national average in classroom size, and at the postsecondary level, we’re 11th in the percentage of students between the ages of 18 to 24 who are enrolled at a postsecondary school. Outside of the classroom, we have more public libraries than most states, and only four states have a greater percentage of computers wired to the internet in their libraries.

We have fewer roads in poor condition than any other state, which is certainly good news, and we get good use out of them too. We’re 12th among the states in the number of commuters who drive alone to work, and 16th in the percentage who drive there in a carpool.

In other good news, our violent crime rate dropped 13.5 percent from 2008 to 2009, more than double the national average. We also saw almost half as many complaints of identity theft as the average state in 2009, and we were low that year in reports of consumer fraud.  Kentucky also has a low motor-vehicle theft rate and, relatively speaking, not many assaults, either.

Individually, these statistics may not give much insight into Kentucky, but taken together, they illuminate quite a bit. All in all, they show us that more often than not, we have a lot going for us.

Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 351C, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.