Bill moves to let Kentucky Horse Park hire outside merit system, share in local ‘bedroom’ tax

By Jack Brammer, Kentucky Lantern

A state legislative panel unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would allow the Kentucky Horse Park to exclude its new hires from the state merit system designed to protect employees from political influence and enable the park to share in the “bedroom tax” collected by hotels, motels and other providers of overnight lodging in Fayette and Scott counties.

With no debate, the House Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee approved House Bill 39 on a 14-0 vote and sent it to the full House for its consideration.  The House may vote on it Tuesday.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Phil Pratt, R-Georgetown, told the panel its purpose is to make the 1,200-acre park in northern Fayette County off KY 1973 (Iron Works Pike) and Interstate 75 more competitive with other horse arenas in the country.

Alston Kerr, chair of the Kentucky Horse Park Commission, said the attempt is to make the park “100 percent more efficient.”

Lee Carter, the park’s director, said he was “very pleased” with the committee’s action on HB 39.

He noted that the committee voted on a substitute of the original bill.

Changes in the substitute, he said, included membership on the park commission.

Membership of the Kentucky Horse Park commission would increase under the proposed legislation. The commission now has 13 members appointed by the governor along with the secretaries of the tourism and economic development cabinets.

Under the legislation, the number of appointments by the governor would drop to 12 and the finance secretary would replace the economic development secretary.

Also added to the commission would be the state agriculture commissioner and the dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. The committee substitute replaced the tourism directors from Lexington and Georgetown with the mayors and county judge-executives.

The bill also would require the park to report to the House panel every year by Nov. 1 and remove language dealing with revenue bonds and the state code to procure various equipment.

The most controversial provision in the bill — excluding new hires from the merit system — would not affect the 55 to 60 merit employees at the park.  They would stay in the merit system but new hires would not.

Dave Smith, head of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said after the committee meeting that without the merit system new hires at the park could be fired any time for any reason.

“We will keep on fighting this. It’s not a done deal yet,” said Smith.

The merit system emphasizes making personnel decisions (hiring, promoting, assigning work and other matters) based on an individual’s qualifications and performance. It also protects state employees against arbitrary actions and discriminatory practices. Politics is not to be involved.

Political appointees, like cabinet secretaries and other managers, are non-merit.  They generally serve at the pleasure of the governor.

Carter, the Horse Park’s director, said excluding new employees from the merit system would provide “more flexibility” in staffing.

The bill also would enable the Horse Park to share in proceeds from the transient or “bedroom” tax collected in Fayette and Scott counties.

Fayette County has a 9.5% transient or bedroom tax. Of that, 1% goes to the state for tourism efforts, 4% goes to VisitLex and the rest to retire debt.

For every percentage point, the tax generates about $2 million.  That means VisitLex gets about $8 million a year from the tax to promote tourism efforts.