If “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, then Sen. Damon Thayer must be brilliant.
This session, Senate majority leader Thayer put the brakes on House Bill 438 to improve transparency, reporting and oversight of the state’s 15 area development districts, known as ADDs, which annually administer over $175 million, almost entirely public funds.
Certainly some ADDs deserve praise. But Rep. Susan Westrom’s HB 438 is a response to serious problems unearthed at others, including the Bluegrass ADD, which was the subject of a devastating state auditor’s report, is now being investigated by a federal agency, and was just told by a state agency to repay almost $900,000 that was improperly spent.
Or the Barren River ADD in Bowling Green. A state department demanded it return almost $83,000 in staff bonuses, and the local chamber of commerce has criticized its workforce training as ineffective.
HB 438 prohibits ADDs from paying bonuses, requires them to advertise executive director jobs and obey state and federal purchasing and conflict of interest laws.
It also requires state agencies that fund ADDs to annually report how much each received, amounts spent on administration and actual services, and the services provided. These reports would give legislators a way to compare performance among ADDs.
It passed the House 92-6 but is hung up in the Senate, apparently because Thayer doesn’t like the bill or Westrom, a Lexington Democrat.
But this session Thayer led a witch hunt against the Kentucky Horse Park. He railed about a $6,000-a-month consulting contract for the gift shop, saying he doubted it grossed much more than that. In fact, it grosses about $108,000 a month, and profits have increased dramatically under the contract. Thayer waved a letter on the Senate floor calling it a “smoking gun” about improper contracting and accounting at the park. When the smoke cleared, the controversy appeared to be about incorrectly coded expenditures not misconduct.
Contrast that over-hyped, and ill-informed, vigilance over tax dollars with Thayer’s laissez-faire attitude about the ADDs, which are major conduits for federal workforce and elder assistance grants.
Whatever the problems between Thayer and Westrom, his indifference is puzzling, considering his focus on the Horse Park, and past advocacy. Thayer sponsored legislation to intensify oversight of the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties, and to require governors to disclose non-official use of the mansion and state aircraft.
“My constituents are very mad about any government waste, fraud and abuse. They want the legislature to have more oversight,” Thayer said in 2010.
Now, he’s more worried about giving the ADDs a break: “I’ve heard there are good reports about self-correction about some of the ADD districts, and we ought to give them some time to work that out.”
Maybe we ought to know for sure which ADDs are doing a good job and which aren’t. We are talking about $175 million for important services each year.
This isn’t the first time Thayer has seemed at odds with his own philosophy. While championing transparency in 2012 he balked at revealing clients of his racing consulting business who could benefit from the casino gambling he was advocating, although he did ultimately release the names. Perhaps his consistency is more telling than his inconsistency.