New courthouses serve as political flashpoints as Ky. legislature considers debt limit

02/27/2012 06:58 AM

With shiny new courthouses opening up across Kentucky, one congressional candidate said last week that counties need to stop building them immediately and turn them into schools.

Thomas Massie, a Republican running in the 4th Congressional District, dedicated his five-minute remarks at a rally about imposing a state debt limit last Wednesday to criticizing the debt incurred by the new county courthouse buying spree.

The judicial branch, since 1998, has moved forward with construction of 70 courthouses across Kentucky. As the Herald-Leader’s Linda Blackford reported in January 2010, Kentucky racked up a bill of $880 million for those new courthouses.

Massie called that spending unnecessary and dangerous, given the amount of debt for which the counties are on the hook. He spoke in favor of Senate Bill 1, which would cap the total amount of debt Kentucky could take on at 6 percent of the state’s revenue level — that’s a benchmark the legislature has historically used but did surpass in the last two-year budget.

Other congressional candidates also spoke at the rally, including Republican candidate for the 6th Congressional District Andy Barr. Barr said he was concerned about debt. But he spent Tuesday embarking on a tour of 6th District counties with high unemployment rates starting at the celebration of the opening of the Fleming County Courthouse.

The sponsor of the debt limit bill, Republican Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro didn’t jump to embrace Massie’s call for halting construction on courthouses in the works. He said he’d have to study it. But he said he agrees with the sentiment. (6:00)

“I have sold this on the pretense that this is programs over pork,” Bowen said at 6:15 of the interview. “You know, we’ve built a lot of monuments across the state of Kentucky … When we let bonds, it’s typically for projects.”

Bowen made several key changes to his original proposal, which would have written the debt limit into the Kentucky constitution. He changed it to alter the statutes, which the legislature can suspend, and he delayed the effective date so it would affect the next budget cycle that will begin in 2014.

“I think the 6 percent is probably too high, if you want to know the truth of the matter. I think 5 percent is probably a better number. But 6 percent is probably a more do-able number,” he said at the 3:30 mark of the interview.

Bowen also added in a provision in which the governor can request the legislature to raise the debt beyond the 6 percent limit.

Bowen also explained why he was among 21 senators who voted against the proposal that would have allowed casino gambling in Kentucky (9:00 of the interview).

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