It took the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce eight months and a national search to select a successor to former President and CEO Dave Adkisson, who announced his retirement last spring.
In the end, the group found their new chief executive right in their Frankfort offices. Ashli Watts, a long-time lobbyist for the organization and its senior vice president for public affairs, became the new president in November. She is the first woman to lead the Kentucky Chamber, and among only six female state chamber presidents in the nation.
“To be a small crack in that glass ceiling is something pretty neat,” says Watts.
The Elizabethtown native joined the chamber in 2012 after stints with the Legislative Research Commission (LRC) and the Kentucky Bar Association. She says being an advocate for businesses large and small is a perfect fit for her personality and skill set.
“I just really fell in love with the work of the chamber,” says Watts, “the diversity of it, that everyday there was something new and really representing business at the capitol.”
In recent General Assembly sessions, Watts worked with lawmakers to help pass legislation on right to work, prevailing wage, workers’ compensation reform, arbitration agreements, and felony expungement. She describes the chamber as a "mini think tank" that researches issues and provides data that helps legislators decide how they want to vote on particular bills.
“I don't know if anyone really aspires to be a lobbyist,” Watts says. “Sometimes there’s a negative connotation that comes along with that, but really it's [being] an advocate.”
A Tough Act to Follow
Watts is not only the first female to lead the Kentucky Chamber, but at age 37 she is also believed to the youngest chief executive in the organization's history.
“I have two kids at home and I drive a minivan and I have a mortgage, and so most days I don't feel that young,” she jokes.
Watts attended Campbellsville University on scholarship where she served as student government president for two years. She got a master's degree in public policy and administration at the University of Louisville while working at the LRC. She says she's part of a new generation of leadership in business and politics in the commonwealth: Almost all of the statewide officials elected in 2019 are under the age of 45, she notes.
Hard work and good timing help speed her rise through the chamber ranks, according to Watts. But she also knows she has a tough act to follow. Adkisson served as chamber president for 15 years before retiring in October. She describes the former Owensboro mayor as a mentor who taught her about the work of chambers of commerce.
“I will never fill Dave Adkisson's shoes – I can’t even try,” says Watts. “But I've got a pretty good pair of high heels ready for the challenge... I have my own personality, I have my own work ethic, and my own vision for the chamber that I’m ready to get to work on.”
Despite the lengthy process and multiple interviews she endured, Watts says she's grateful the chamber board conducted a national search to find a successor to Adkisson.
“I am really, really thankful I went through that process because I think you need that for validity,” Watts says.
Priorities for the 2020 Legislative Session
At the top of Watts' agenda is working with the state lawmakers and the new governor on a range of policy priorities for the 2020 General Assembly session. She says she hopes the chamber can serve as a bridge between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the Republican-controlled legislature.
“There are many things that we all agree upon and we would love to help [Gov. Beshear] see some of his agenda come to fruition,” says Watts.
Although she leads a business organization, Watts says funding education is the best investment the commonwealth can make. That's especially true for early childhood education in a state where less than half of kids aren't prepared to enter kindergarten, according to Watts.
“That’s just unacceptable, we can do better than that – our children deserve better than that,” she says. “If you invest early, then a couple years down the road you see that return on investment with corrections rates dropping, Medicaid rates dropping.”
And high quality, full-day early childhood education that's free for parents is a workforce development issue, according to Watts. It gives Kentucky's youth a stronger foundation for future employment success. It also prevents parents from having to choose between working themselves or staying home to care for a young child.
But increasing education funding is a challenge when the state faces ever-increasing bills for public pensions, Medicaid, and incarceration. Despite the strong economy, record low unemployment, and historic levels of business investment, Watts says state revenues aren't keeping pace with its financial obligations.
“Tax reform is absolutely needed,” she says. “It’s needed in a way to make our state more competitive so that we can create those good-paying jobs, but in addition we have to create revenue.”
One revenue option Gov. Beshear wants to enact is expanded gaming, but Republican leaders in the Senate have already come out against that idea. Lawmakers might compromise by allowing Kentuckians to bet on sports events like basketball and football games. Watts says sports wagering is a "no brainer" for the business community since several neighboring states already allow it. It's also revenue that could go to public education and other spending priorities.
“It’s not going to solve the budget problem, but every little bit helps,” she says.
Watts says many urban lawmakers that have horse racing tracks in their districts or casinos just across their borders are comfortable with allowing sports wagering. The challenge, she says, will be to convince rural lawmakers to embrace the idea.