FRANKFORT (AP) — A growing political feud spread to Kentucky’s scenic horse country Friday when a top Republican lawmaker accused a protege of the Democrat who recently left the governor’s office of mismanaging the Kentucky Horse Park.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer called for an audit of the tourist attraction and introduced legislation to overhaul membership of the commission overseeing it. If his bill becomes law, the wife of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear would likely be ousted from the commission that governs the sprawling horse park in Lexington.
In a Senate speech, Thayer said a prior audit by the state Finance and Administration Cabinet found flaws in awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of contracts by the horse park. That audit, done while Beshear was in office, covered a four-year period ending June 30, 2014.
Thayer, R-Georgetown, bluntly said he has no confidence in the horse park’s executive director, Jamie Link, who was Beshear’s deputy chief of staff when he was selected for the horse park job. Link did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
“We need to shed some sunlight on the operations at the Kentucky Horse Park,” Thayer later told reporters.
The lawmaker said he was asking new GOP state Auditor Mike Harmon to review the park, which drew about 800,000 visitors last year, according to park officials.
The accusations spurred a sharply worded exchange between Beshear and the office of his successor, Gov. Matt Bevin.
Beshear said the audit cited by Thayer occurred before the horse park’s current management team assumed the reins. Significant improvements have been made based on that review, and the horse park is prospering as a tourist attraction and focal point for the state’s equine industry, the former governor said.
“Once again, Sen. Thayer’s mouth began working before his brain engaged,” Beshear said.
Bevin’s administration weighed in by saying it supports Thayer’s call for a full audit — with an aromatic metaphor. “If there’s a mess at the horse park, Gov. Bevin wants it cleaned up,” said his spokeswoman, Jessica Ditto.
State Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Don Parkinson said he supports an updated audit to determine what “operational adjustments” were made by horse park managers in light of the prior review.
Questions about the horse park’s management add fuel to an ongoing feud between Kentucky’s two most recent governors over the state’s health care system.
Beshear has formed a tax-exempt organization that will pay for an online campaign he said will “educate voters” about Bevin’s plans to make fewer people eligible for Medicaid and to dismantle a state program where some can purchase private insurance plans at a discount.
Beshear said Bevin will be “held accountable.” Bevin said he was fulfilling a campaign promise on health care and called it “a little sad” that Beshear “is still scrambling for a sense of relevancy.”
Adding to the familial drama, Beshear’s son, state Attorney General Andy Beshear, is trying to revive a lawsuit that Bevin’s administration has dropped. Andy Beshear said he’s outraged by the Bevin administration’s decision to drop its defense of a state law designed to protect life insurance benefits. Andy Beshear said he will ask the state Supreme Court to substitute his office for the governor so the lawsuit can continue.
Meanwhile, Thayer’s bill would jeopardize Jane Beshear’s membership on the horse park commission. Beshear named his wife to the commission shortly before he left office in December.
Thayer said “it’s a problem when the governor appoints his wife and friends to such positions.”
The GOP lawmaker said his bill would reduce the number of commission members. Three would be at-large members with experience in marketing, management or finance. Six other members would be chosen from names submitted by various horse groups. All would be chosen by the governor.
Steve Beshear said that any criticism of his wife’s appointment to the commission was ridiculous, given her long ties with the horse park.
“Because of her passion, experience and knowledge, there’s not a person in the commonwealth more qualified to serve on this board than Jane Beshear,” he said.