Kentucky editorial roundup

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Recent editorials from Kentucky newspapers:

Nov. 20

Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader on state tax reform:

If ever a pair of taxes screamed "raise me" it's Kentucky's cigarette and severance taxes.

Gov. Steve Beshear's Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform heeded the call on tobacco but whiffed on the severance tax.

The commission's recommendation to raise the state tax on a pack of cigarettes from 60 cents to $1 would produce an additional $120 million the first year for the state to spend on such things as education.

The bigger payoff would come in health-care savings over time as fewer Kentuckians smoked.

Any hopes Kentucky has of achieving broad prosperity depend on shaking off our reputation as the land of the sick and the home of the obese.

What do prospective employers think when they read, as they did recently in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, that Kentucky had the nation's second-highest increase in diabetes over the last 15 years — 158 percent — or that almost 1 in 10 Kentuckians has diabetes?

They think they'd rather be almost any place else.

Type 2 diabetes is part of a grisly smorgasbord of disabling ailments that studies have linked to smoking. ...

The Legislature should get behind a tobacco-tax increase because it makes economic sense.

Raising the severance tax on coal, natural gas, oil and other extractive industries to the same rate as West Virginia's also makes economic sense, but at an earlier meeting the commission rejected that idea.

There was no debate, so we don't know what the thinking was. If the commission wanted to preserve a competitive advantage for Kentucky's coal industry, that's silly.

Kentucky coal can only be mined in Kentucky. Having to pay an extra 0.5 percent won't deter a profitable mining operation. (Kentucky collects 4.5 percent of gross value in severance taxes while West Virginia's base rate is 5 percent plus an extra severance tax to shore up workers compensation.)

On the other hand, if the commission was thinking that an increase in severance taxes, especially on coal, should go, not into the state's General Fund, but into a trust fund for coal counties, that makes sense.

The Appalachian coal industry is expected to sharply decline. Increasing the severance tax and dedicating a portion of it to an economic development trust fund would provide an ongoing revenue stream after the resource is depleted. Rather than as part of tax reform, that decision belongs in a discussion of regional economic development — the sooner, the better.

Online:

http://www.kentucky.com

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Nov. 25

Owensboro (Ky.) Messenger-Inquirer on state taxing districts:

State Auditor Adam Edelen's attempt to rein in the state's more than 1,000 taxing districts has been easier said than done.

Earlier this year, Edelen set out to compile a list of every taxing district in the state and create an online database (www.citizenauditor.ky.gov.) that would provide the public with a better sense of how their money was being spent.

Edelen's report counted 1,270 special taxing districts among the state's 120 counties, combining for $2.7 billion in spending annually — more than the state spends on Medicaid and matching what's spent on education in the commonwealth.

All but three counties — Pike, Daviess and McLean — collect more taxes and fees than the county governments.

There should be some solace in knowing this county's taxing districts — library, soil conservation, health department and ag extension — haven't managed to surpass the Daviess County Fiscal Court.

Still, the lack of oversight by the state and the majority of the counties is unconscionable.

Taxing districts are appointed boards comprised of non-elected members who can raise taxes at will — universally known as "taxation without representation."

Another problem is that there are 1,000 Kentucky statutes dating back to 1912 empowering these special taxing districts, which are broken down into 43 different categories.

An example of how brazen some of these taxing districts have become can be found in the responses they gave to the auditor's surveys: "Would rather the public contact us directly to gain information so we know who is asking." ''I just don't think all this information needs to be public."

The taxing districts believe they can operate in this manner because they don't answer directly to the public and they're not watched as closely as our city councils and fiscal courts. ...

Bottom line is that non-elected boards should never be given this much authority to levy taxes without any kind of public scrutiny.

Edelen deserves to be applauded for tackling such a daunting task in an effort to create accountability and transparency.

It's about time the General Assembly follows the auditor's lead by taking steps to show these special taxing districts that it's not their money they're playing with. Therefore, they must answer to the citizens.

Online:

http://www.messenger-inquirer.com

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Nov. 27

The Daily News, Bowling Green, Ky., on mining official denying permits:

It is a shame that the highest-ranking official in charge of issuing mine permits in Kentucky was fired several years ago, but at the end of the day we believe he did the right thing by not turning a blind eye to what he believed was an illegal state policy.

Ron Mills claimed he was fired three years ago for blocking illegal permits sought by coal company Alliance Resources.

Mills filed suit, claiming he was fired because he didn't agree with a cabinet policy to grant mining permits to coal companies before they obtained rights to enter a mine property from 100 percent of property owners. The policy that Mills objected to was instituted in 2007. It allows an underground mine permit to be granted to a coal company if the company showed it had obtained the legal right to enter at least two-thirds of the area to be permitted.

Cabinet officials say the policy, which is still in effect, is legal and said Mills was fired because he had not met "performance expectations."

Mills contends that state law requires companies to obtain entry rights from all property owners before a permit can be issued.

Tom Fitzgerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the record "totally supported" Mills' claims.

Although the state denies any wrongdoing or any violation in regard to Mills, a five-page settlement by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet says the state agreed to pay Mills $270,000 in exchange for him dropping a lawsuit he brought in Franklin Circuit Court claiming he was fired for blowing the whistle on what he said was an illegal state policy.

The settlement also includes a confidentiality provision prohibiting the parties from discussing settlement negotiations.

One has to wonder if the state believes that its permit policy is legal, then why settle with Mills?

Wouldn't the state want to prove that the policy in question was legal and that Mills was wrong in regard to denying the permit?

This seems to be a fair question, particularly in light of the settlement amount.

Did the state have something to hide by settling?

Maybe, but because the case didn't go to trial, we will never know for sure.

We believe that Mills had some valid concerns and believe he acted in an ethical manner when he put his job on the line by refusing to issue what he considered an illegal permit.

Online:

http://www.bgdailynews.com

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