Analysis: Coal money spread from projects to abstinence programs

06/04/2010 10:43 AM

House lawmakers prepare for a vote in the May 2010 special session.

State lawmakers in Eastern and Western Kentucky tagged more than $60 million in coal severance tax for a range of purposes, including construction projects, paying down counties’ debts, little league equipment, health programs and even abstinence education.

A cn|2 Politics analysis of the 470 line-items in the two-year state spending plan the General Assembly passed last week showed that more than two-thirds of that money — $43 million — went toward construction projects. Those include public or community buildings, roads, park improvements or water and sewer infrastructure. Lawmakers designated about $10 million of that money for repayment of debt on such projects.

The other $17 million got sprinkled around for programs and agency operations, school technology, colon cancer screening, little league equipment, fire and rescue gear and senior citizens centers, to name a few.

The coal severance tax is designed to go back to the counties most affected by the mining industry. Counties where much of the mining is done get the most, but counties whose roads are used heavily by the coal trucks also get a share.

There is no one guiding philosophy for how lawmakers from counties affected by the coal industry should allot that money, said Rep. Rick Rand, a Bedford Democrat who chairs the House budget committee.

Some urban lawmakers have questioned whether the sprinkling of money in few-thousand dollar chunks is the best use of those funds. Spending money on little league equipment might be popular in a community, but it might be better spent by pooling it into a larger, more permanent investment, suggested Rep. Bill Farmer, a Lexington Republican.

“Yeah, it’s only $3,000 here and there. But those things add up, especially at a time when we’re supposed to have an austere budget,” he said.

State Sen. Robin Webb, a Democrat from Grayson and former vice chairman of the House budget committee, said her philosophy when tagging money for coal severance tax was that any investment in children, including in youth sports, was a worthy use of the money.

“I never would apologize for investing in sports,” she said. “If there’s a chance that sports could help just one student get a scholarship to college that would help that child land a well-paying job than that pays itself back and then some.”

Each county and the lawmakers that represent it must decide what the most pressing needs are in that county, she said.

And that often varies.

Boyd County, for instance, spent nearly all of its $725,000 on construction projects. And Knott County used nearly $1.6 million to pay off the debt for a major sports complex built several years ago and another $3.8 million on a host of water and sewer projects.

Other counties, spread out their funds across many programs.

Roughtly three quarters of the counties included money for fire department equipment. Many counties included funding for senior citizens centers or related programs. And most of the counties designated some of the money for technology upgrades at schools, county offices and libraries.

Magoffin and Menifee counties each received $10,o00 pegged for an abstinence education program called HOPE through the counties’ board of education.

Here’s a summary, according to the cn|2 analysis, of how the lawmakers tagged the money for the next two years for the 36 coal counties:

  • $19.4 million for construction and improvements
  • $13.3 million for water and sewer projects
  • $10.3 million in debt repayments
  • $7.5 million in equipment and supplies for agencies and organizations
  • $4.4 million in program funing
  • $3.8 million in agency operations
  • $135,240 in economic incentive funds

Click here for the full spreadsheet of all 470 coal severance tax line items contained in the state budget.

- Ryan Alessi

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