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Bill giving politicians control of libraries fails in KY House

Bill giving politicians control of libraries fails in KY House


The downtown Pikeville location of the Pike County Public Library.

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A controversial bill that would have awarded control of public libraries to local politicians died in the Kentucky House on Wednesday night when supporters fell a few votes short of overriding Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto.

Only 48 of the 100 House members voted to override Beshear’s veto of Senate Bill 167. The bill needed 51 votes to survive.

In his veto, Beshear warned that the bill imperiled “the non-political nature of library boards” and “threatens the space libraries occupy in our communities where everyone is welcome to freely access and exchange information, regardless of political viewpoint.”

The bill would have changed how libraries operate in most of Kentucky’s 120 counties, ending their traditional independence as self-governed and self-financed tax districts, created by citizen petitions.

Under the bill, county judge-executives could have decided library board appointments on their own, discarding the current system where they are given two state-vetted finalists selected by the library board.

County fiscal courts could have vetoed capital spending of $1 million or more, thwarting library renovations or expansions and the construction of new branches.

And with fresh leadership in place, the bill would let libraries hand their buildings over to “educational institutions,” either leasing out existing facilities on unspecified terms or building new facilities on behalf of those schools or universities.

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, filed the bill after the private University of Pikeville feuded with the Pike County Public Library over possession of the library’s one-story building in downtown Pikeville, which the university wants for an expansion.

Pike County Judge-Executive Ray Jones, who backs the university’s plan, last summer publicly said he would pursue legislation in Frankfort that would give him the authority to pick his own library board members.

On Wednesday, Wheeler said he was concerned with accountability. Library boards set property tax rates, and so they should answer to public officials who are elected by voters, he said. The Senate voted 23-to-13 to override the governor’s veto, sending the bill to the House, where some members objected to the possible loss of independence for libraries in deciding what books go on shelves, which programs are offered and where locations are available.

The bill failed when five Republican representatives who had supported the bill on March 30 changed their yes votes: Josh Calloway of Irvington, Jonathan Dixon of Corydon and Daniel Elliott of Danville, who did not vote on Wednesday, and Norma Kirk-McCormick of Inez and William Lawrence of Maysville, who voted no on Wednesday.

Another Republican, Rep. Jason Nemes of Louisville, switched from not voting on March 30 to voting for the bill on Wednesday. But that was not enough to overcome its loss of support.

This story was originally published April 13, 2022 9:26 PM.

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John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.
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