FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's GOP-dominated Senate has rejected a request from Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's administration to borrow $50 million in an election year to fix up the state's park system.
House bill 268, which cleared the House of Representatives last week by a vote of 93-6, would authorize the Cabinet for Tourism, Arts and Heritage to borrow $50 million in the budget year that begins July 1 to pay for such items as new roofs and expanded campgrounds. The bill also pledges to borrow an extra $100 million over the next three years for the same purpose.
But Tuesday, the Senate amended the bill to remove all the parks money by a bipartisan, 35-1 vote — setting up a potential spending fight with the House of Representatives.
Even Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, who is Bevin's running mate as he seeks a second term this year, voted to remove the money. But Alvarado said in an interview after the vote that he supports borrowing the money, but voted 'yes' simply to move the bill to a conference committee where House and Senate negotiators can work out a compromise.
The Kentucky legislature passes a two-year spending plan in even-numbered years. They aren't supposed to authorize new spending in odd-numbered years, except if it is an emergency. That's why any new spending in an odd-numbered year requires a three-fifths majority vote.
Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel, chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee, said he does not see the parks system maintenance problems as "genuine emergencies." He noted lawmakers have been aware of the problems, which is why last year they authorized the Cabinet to borrow up to $20 million to make improvements.
"Certainly, the park system needs some help. It's no secret to anybody who has been there that they are deficient in many areas," McDaniel said. "Appropriations in a short session should be reserved for emergencies: riots, earthquakes, forest fires, things like that where you genuinely have unanticipated expenses."
Kentucky's parks department operates 17 resort parks, 22 recreational parks and 10 historic sites. Resort parks include hotels, restaurants and recreation such as golf courses and boating. Each year, the park system has an average of 431,000 overnight guests, 560,000 campers, 170,000 golfers and serves nearly 1.2 million meals.
State budget writers neglected the park system in the tight budget years after the Great Recession, which began around 2008. But state officials have been trying to make repairs ahead of the park system's 100th anniversary in 2024. Since 2016, the state legislature has authorized $38 million in spending — mostly through loans — to make repairs. But state officials say more is needed.
The state has completed 133 improvement projects at various state parks since 2016. A news release from the governor's office says those improvements resulted in an extra $7.6 million in revenue.
"Kentucky State Parks have an estimated annual economic impact of $1 billion, and they enhance the quality of life for all our citizens," Cabinet spokesman John Cox said. "After many years of neglect, this administration is finally making the necessary investments to restore them to the sparkling gems that they are."
The Kentucky chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which is run by former Bevin aide Andrew McNeill, praised the Senate for taking "an important step to today to rein in Kentucky's overspending problem."
Kentucky is one of three states that will elect governors in 2019, and Bevin is seeking a second term. But McDaniel, the Senate Republican budget chairman, said he cannot be convinced to put the money back in.
"Obviously, we cranked it out of here unanimously here today," McDaniel said. "I think that speaks volumes."