The Richmond Register

July 19, 2013

Ideas plentiful but funding not

As magistrates, judge/executives meet

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

LOUISVILLE — County officials gathered here for a joint conference of the Kentucky Judge/Executives and Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners associations have plenty of ideas about improving their communities.

What they say they don’t have is the means to implement those ideas. They’d like a little help from the General Assembly when it convenes in January. But they don’t expect to get much.

“There’s just so much they need to do up there,” said Monroe County Magistrate Alonzo Ford, a Republican. “They need to do some sort of tax reform.”

But Ford knows the political risk of raising taxes, and he’s not counting on state lawmakers to take that risk. And as a Republican, Ford also is philosophically inclined to look first at the expenditure side.

“I’d say they need more money, but maybe they should just be more conservative,” Ford said.

Gov. Steve Beshear last year formed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform which recommended numerous changes to Kentucky’s tax code. The proposal would also generate between $60 million and $90 million in new state revenues.

But except for a few minor changes used to fund a change in the state pension funding system, none were ever acted upon.

Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Rep. Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, have called for the governor to build public support for tax reform before the 2014 session, and Hoover wants Beshear to put forth some specific proposals lawmakers can begin to debate.

Fulton County Judge/Executive David Gallagher, a registered independent, says the state needs to concentrate on economic development to make any real progress. But he’s skeptical about tax reform which raises taxes on those already paying them.

“You can’t just raise tax rates on people who are already hurting,” Gallagher said. “You’ve got to spread it out.”

Barren County Judge/Executive Davie Greer, a Republican, thinks lawmakers should look at adding a penny to the existing sales tax.

But she acknowledged how difficult that might be by observing she’s not planning to run for another term. Nonetheless, Greer said, the state “needs more revenue to do the things we need.”

But Greer thinks it’s unlikely state lawmakers will take on the task — especially in a year when all 100 House members and half the 38 state Senators will be on the ballot that fall.

LaRue County Judge/Executive Tommy Turner has served on previous tax reform committees and study groups. He said if some of the recommendations offered by those groups had been adopted, “we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

But Turner, a Democrat, agrees with Republican Greer.

“There’s not enough will in Frankfort to do anything on tax reform,” Turner said.

Turner made the remark to a state legislator, Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington. But Simpson — who supports tax reform — said he isn’t optimistic significant tax reform can pass.

Tommy Barnett, a Republican magistrate from Pulaski County, wants lawmakers to address a specific type of local tax — the occupational tax. He said lawmakers need to renew a provision that allows cities and counties to share occupational taxes which Barnet said are often collected on county residents who work in the cities.

Warren County’s Republican Judge/Executive Mike Buchanon favors tax reform which would include a local option for voters to approve increases in the sales tax to pay for specific projects.

Edmonson County Judge N.E. Reed, a Republican, doesn’t see tax reform occurring in the 2014 session. But he said the state can help local counties by taking over the expense of paying for state prisoners in county jails “for time served.”

Reed said his judicial circuit faces a significant backlog of criminal cases and some defendants don’t come to trial for 18 months or two years. Then when sentenced, they are often given credit for the time served in the county jail.

“They broke a state law; the state wanted them arrested and the state tried them,” Reed said. “But they want the county to pay for the costs of their medical care and incarceration.”

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.