FRANKFORT (AP) — Legislation that would revamp the Kentucky Horse Park’s governing body completed its quick trip through the state Senate on Monday in a partisan debate focusing on the tourist attraction’s top manager.
The bill seeking to reorganize the park’s commission and trim its membership from 17 to nine passed the Senate on a 26-10 vote. Democrats opposed the bill in what turned into lengthy debate about the park’s management under the stewardship of its executive director, Jamie Link. The bill now goes to the House.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, said the park has been more profitable and efficient since Link took over in the fall of 2014. Thomas said lawmakers should allow time for an audit of the popular attraction in Kentucky’s scenic bluegrass country before taking action to overhaul the park’s commission.
Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, said Link has used the results of a prior audit, which covered a four-year period before his arrival, as a “road map” to improve the park’s finances.
“Let’s give him reasonable time and make both revenue and expense improvements before we evaluate the performance,” Ridley said.
In response, Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer pointed to a decision by Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration to scale back the park’s purchasing authority as proof that the park has problems.
The directive from the state Finance and Administration Cabinet last week said the horse park followed improper procurement practices. Specifically, the cabinet said it found more than $500,000 worth of purchases from an unnamed vendor that did not have a contract with the horse park.
Finance Cabinet Secretary William M. Landrum III wrote that improper purchasing practices appeared to continue since Link’s hiring as executive director. Landrum said the park’s non-construction small purchasing authority was reduced from $20,000 to $1,000.
Thayer, R-Georgetown, called Landrum’s letter a “smoking gun.”
“It’s clear that there are problems at the horse park,” said Thayer, whose district includes part of the park.
Thomas countered that Landrum’s letter contained unsubstantiated allegations meant to bolster support for the legislation. Thayer said Thomas’ comments were “completely out of line.”
Link told a Senate committee recently that he inherited “a mess” when he arrived as the park’s executive director. He said he fixed problems exposed in the audit that reviewed the park before his arrival.
Citing Landrum’s letter, Thayer responded Monday that “despite Mr. Link’s claims in committee last week that he has fixed what is wrong at the horse park, this proves that’s a lie.”
The sprawling horse park has come under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks with political undertones.
Link was deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, when he was selected for the horse park job. Shortly before leaving the governor’s office last December, Beshear appointed his wife, Jane, to the horse park’s commission. Jane Beshear is a longtime advocate of the horse industry. At the time, the appointment to the unpaid position was criticized by a Bevin spokeswoman as “self-serving behavior.”
Thayer has said his bill stems from complaints about low staff morale and political patronage as well as increased fees to stage equine events at the horse park or to stay at its campgrounds.
Under his bill, three members of the horse park’s commission would be at-large members with experience in marketing, management or finance. Six other members could be chosen from names submitted by various horse groups. All would be chosen by the governor.
Thayer also is asking GOP state Auditor Mike Harmon to review the horse park.
Link has said he would welcome such an audit.
The legislation is Senate Bill 200.