Kentucky lawmakers earmark mineral taxes to fund Louisville's botanical gardens
A Louisville Metro Council member claims the state earmark precludes local decision making for funds that previously were under city control.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Kentucky lawmakers dedicated funds in the state budget to a botanical gardens in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood, providing a boost for a project that aims to open its first building next year.
In doing so, the legislature used an apparently rare approach: It earmarked Jefferson County’s share of mineral tax revenue.
House Bill 200, which became law after both chambers of the General Assembly voted last Friday to override Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto, requires those funds be spent on the work at River Road and Frankfort Avenue over the next two years.
The money is divvied out to counties under a state revenue-sharing program that assesses taxes on extracted minerals, such as limestone. It’s not immediately clear how much the gardens would get, but the Louisville Metro Council budgeted $430,000 in mineral tax funds during the current fiscal year.
While he supports the project, council member Bill Hollander accused state legislators of allocating the money through a “secret process” that resulted in no local decision making on how best to spend the funds.
Hollander, a Democrat whose council district includes Butchertown, said in a text message that the mineral tax funds had historically been placed in the city’s general fund.
He said “local elected officials should decide how Louisville’s limited state tax receipts are spent. Frankfort should not earmark tax money owed to Louisville.”
Fischer believes "we need more local control, so we can best decide where funds can get the maximum return for all of our citizens. Even though we had not asked for our mineral severance dollars to be directly appropriated by the General Assembly, we certainly support Botanica," spokeswoman Jean Porter said in an email.
Legislators who helped craft the budget did not respond to questions or requests for comment on Tuesday.
Waterfront Botanical Gardens executive director Kasey Maier said the money approved by lawmakers will aid construction on the project’s $10 million first phase, which includes the Graeser Family Education Center near Interstate 71. Plans call for that building to open in fall 2019.
“We’re really pleased – not just about the money,” she said. “The money’s important, but leaders in the state who don’t live in Louisville are recognizing the project. … That’s a really big deal.”
Site preparation work began last December on the $63 million venture to be built in three phases as funding becomes available. A visitor center, restaurant and conservatory also are planned, among a sweep of gardens on the 23.5-acre site once home to the Ohio Street landfill.
The funds approved this year mark the first time the project has survived the state budget process, Maier said. A $225,000 annual appropriation included in the two-year spending plan during the 2016 session was subsequently vetoed by Bevin.
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has provided about $750,000 in brownfields and other grants to clean up the property, she said. In Louisville, she added, the Metro Council allocated $30,000 last year.
The nonprofit Waterfront Botanical Gardens has ramped up its lobbying in Frankfort, spending $8,000 during the 2018 General Assembly, according to Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission records through March, and $12,000 since last year’s session ended. In all, the organization has spent $52,143 since 2015.
Maier said the organization asked to be included in the budget but didn’t seek to use the mineral severance tax.
“We had no idea about that,” she said, “We were just lobbying for any funds that could be allocated to us.”
Pam Thomas, a senior fellow at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy who spent 23 years in the state’s Legislative Research Commission, said lawmakers routinely have dedicated tax revenue from mined coal to specific projects, but that practice hasn’t been frequently applied to taxes from other minerals.
“They may have done it here and there in the past,” she said, “but it’s not as common.”