It’s official: The Kentucky General Assembly has a license to steal, following last week’s ruling by the state Supreme Court that it’s OK for lawmakers to plug holes in the state budget by raiding dozens of small boards and commissions created to oversee public safety.
In a 5-2 ruling, the state’s highest court upheld the right of the state legislature to seize funds from oversight groups such as the state Department of Charitable Gaming and boards that regulate doctors, nurses and building inspectors — even though such groups get no state money and exist solely on license fees their members pay.
These boards and commissions were created for public protection. They use the money to license and educate members, supervise their work, investigate misconduct and take disciplinary action to try to spare citizens from harm.
The department that oversees charitable gaming, a pastime that grosses $365 million a year, was created in 1994 after eye-popping raids on bingo halls in Louisville that found buckets of cash and rampant fund-skimming by unscrupulous — and unregulated — operators.
Yet Kentucky lawmakers for years have used such oversight groups as a public piggy bank, scooping up their money through a budget maneuver they use to suspend laws that otherwise would prevent them from doing just that. They call such maneuvers “transfers” — much like how the pickpocket transfers a wallet from your pocket to his.
In recent years, as budgets have grown tighter with lawmakers increasingly unwilling to raise revenue from the obvious source — taxes — the practice has become more egregious.
The upshot was a lengthy legal fight that ended in last week’s Supreme Court decision concluding that the law and the state Constitution give lawmakers, who draft a new budget every two years, the right to engage in this biennial feeding frenzy.
Writing for the majority, Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson said the transfers do not amount to a “surreptitious tax,” as opponents to the practice had claimed, and that lawmakers are allowed to transfer to the General Fund “surplus” funds from boards and agencies.
In a dissent, Justice Daniel J. Venters compared lawmakers to addicts seeking a fix, saying the decision enables them to continue dodging their duty.
“It is a sleight-of-hand technique for shifting the financial burden of general government while avoiding the unpalatable prospects of increasing taxes, decreasing services, or both,” he said.
And dodge they will, through a budget gimmick now sanctioned by the Supreme Court.
— The Courier-Journal, Louisville