Kentucky’s last three budgets have swept millions of dollars from the state’s primary source for funding the protection and management of natural lands, leaving less money for the preservation of historical sites, pristine habitats and rare and endangered species.
After the legislature swept $2.5 million in the 2019 budget year, it got to the point where the legislature was taking more than the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund [KHLCF] was bringing in on an annual basis. And the sweeps took place at a time when revenues were already in decline.
Gov. Andy Beshear says he intends to reverse the trend.
Following years of sweeps under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Beshear’s proposed budget restores the full funding for the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.
“What this land conservation fund does is to ensure that we preserve that natural beauty that both makes Kentucky the special place that it is, but also is that huge economic driver for tourism,” Beshear said.
Over the last 15 years, the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund has helped to conserve and protect more than 92,000 acres in 67 counties across the state.
The funding has helped to preserve Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, conduct research on invasive species like the Emerald ash borer, and protect federally threatened (and oddly named) plants including the “globe bladderpod.”
The fund also protects sites from development with deed restrictions and conservation easements — like the one protecting Bernheim’s 494-acre Cedar Grove Wildlife Corridor.
Louisville Gas and Electric wants to run a 3/4 mile long natural gas pipeline through the easement. Now LG and E is suing KHLCF in a case that could set precedent for for other conservation easements.
Over the last half-decade, the fund has been hit not just by reallocation of its budgets. It’s also been slammed by declines in the revenues that fund its work.
“The fund has been hit, I think, by a bit of a double whammy,” said Pam Thomas, senior fellow at the Kentucky Center for Economic policy. “So just the resources coming in have diminished significantly.”
Funding for the land conservation fund comes primarily from the sale of Kentucky Nature License Plates, a portion of the unmined mineral tax on coal, environmental fines and interest.
License plates sales are about half of what they used to be, while funding from the unmined mineral tax is just a fraction of what it once was, according to the KHLCF annual report.
The sweeps began with the 2014 budget under then-Gov. Steve Beshear. The legislature has reallocated anywhere from $2.5 to $5 million every year since, Thomas said. Most of the sweeps came from environmental fines and unmined mineral taxes. License plate funding has remained intact.
“What the legislature does when they sweep is they look at these funds that aren’t part of the general fund,” Thomas said. “And they take money out of them and put money into the General Fund, which reduces the capacity of those funds.”
Overall, the funds have decreased from a 10-year-high of $5.2 million in 2012 to about $1.9 million in 2019, Thomas said.
Future of the Fund
In the 2019 budget year, total annual revenues for the KHLCF plummeted more than $600,000 into the red.
The fund still managed to protect about 1,500 acres in the 2019 budget. But Board Chairman Zeb Weese said it’s diminished the fund’s ability to purchase new lands.
The board has approved support for 10 new projects, but it’s all contingent on future available funding. Those projects include nearly $1.6 million for nearly 1,400 acres in Clark, Hancock, Henry, Hart, Wayne and Powell counties.
“We’ve been not doing as much as we would like, but we’re getting to the point if there are continued sweeps, we really probably would not be able to do anything at all going forward,” Weese said.
Beshear said his proposed budget is balanced, but also relies on less than half of the fund transfers as the last budget or the one before it.
“I believe that data driven approach showed us that this fund needed the dollars coming to achieve its mission over the next biennial,” he said.
Environmental advocates say protecting the fund that preserves the state’s natural beauty should be common sense, but that’s not the only reason to protect it.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, The Division of Forestry, state parks and the Wild River program are among other entities that receive support from the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund, Boldman said.
“I think it’s for both parties to recognize that there are places that really deserve protection so that generations to come can benefit from them,” Boldman said.
Now it’s up to the legislature to decide whether or not to preserve the funding while at the same time passing a constitutionally-mandated balanced budget at a time tax revenues haven’t kept up with government expenses.