A statement from Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters:
I recently wrote a Bluegrass Beacon column praising state Auditor Adam Edelen’s initiative to hold accountable more than 1,200 special taxing districts strung out across the commonwealth that handle $2.7 billion per year. (Remember what happened when groups like the Kentucky Association of Counties and Lexington’s Bluegrass Airport Board were allowed to operate out of the bright light of transparency?)
Often, the members of these local-government entities — which include water, fire and library districts — are unelected officials. For too long, too many of these districts — which number more than 1,200 — have not fulfilled their responsibilities to taxpayers.
I noted in my column that “40 percent of these ghost governments ignore their legal obligation to submit budgets to county governments, and that half with revenues over $750,000 per year are not subjected to the audits required by law.”
Legislation filed Tuesday by House Speaker Greg Stumbo attempts to address the lack of accountability on the part of these districts by requiring them to file annual financial reports with an online state registry that would allow citizens to keep tabs on how these special taxing districts spend their money each year.
The Bluegrass Institute has been supportive of this effort, including collaborating with the Auditor’s office on how to create a user-friendly database that would truly empower Kentucky’s citizen taxpayers. We appreciate the opportunity to work with Edelen’s office on this aspect of the project.
However, there are details that need to be worked out to ensure that an unnecessary and burgeoning government bureaucracy is not created. The institute is concerned, for example, about the mandated fees that would be required of small, volunteer fire districts.
Just as we need accountability on the part of the taxing districts themselves, we do not favor giving the Auditor’s office, the Department of Local Government or any other government bureaucracy a blank check. Fees must be reasonable and citizens must receive a superior return on their investment.
So while we support the policy of bringing transparency to these special taxing districts contained in House Bill 1, we want to make sure that all legislators are offered the opportunity to read. consider this legislation and hear from constituents before being called upon to cast a vote.
The bill, which was filed only yesterday, already received committee approval today and could go to the House floor tomorrow.
The Bluegrass Institute has clearly stated on past occasions and does so here again: No matter how much we may agree with a free-market policy promoted by a bill — which we clearly do agree with the policy of transparency and accountability contained in HB 1, as a 501c3, nonprofit organization, we are prohibited from lobbying for a particular bill.
Plus, another principle we have clearly stated in the past — particularly about the final version of the state budget — and do so here again: Lawmakers need more than 24 hours to consider important bills. There is no reason why they should be denied that opportunity with HB 1, as well.
In fact, by giving lawmakers adequate time to deliberate and offer amendments, it could strengthen what is arguably the best-ever attempt to take the spookiness out of these “ghost governments” that, in many cases, representation the worst aspects of “taxation without representation.”
If the supporters of this bill are confident of its potential, then they should not be afraid to let it be properly considered.