FRANKFORT — A controversial proposal that would allow property valuation administrators to follow county ethics rules instead of the state's tougher code of conduct cleared a House committee Thursday.
The House State Government Committee on Thursday approved House Bill 147 on a 24-2 vote, despite many legislators expressing reservations about the measure. It now goes to the full House for consideration.
At issue is whether PVAs are county or state employees. The matter is also the subject of a lawsuit pending before the state Court of Appeals.
The Executive Branch Ethics Commission opened an investigation in 2008 of 11 PVAs — included then-Fayette County PVA Renee True — for allegedly hiring family members to work in their offices, a violation of state ethics rules. True was accused of hiring her mother.
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The PVAs fought the investigation in Franklin Circuit Court. In June, Judge Phillip Shepherd sided with the PVAs and said the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which enforces the state's ethics codes, did not have jurisdiction over the PVAs. The commission then appealed the decision to the state Court of Appeals.
Property valuation administrators — who determine the value of property so it can be taxed — are considered state Department of Revenue employees but work out of county courthouses. They are elected by county voters.
Mack Bushart, executive director of the Kentucky PVA Association, said the PVAs decided to pursue the legislation because they are now covered by no ethics code because of the pending court case.
"We don't have an ethics authority over us," Bushart said.
There is precedent for PVAs to follow county rules, Bushart said after the meeting. For example, PVAs follow county procurement codes — or guidelines for purchasing goods and services — unless the county does not have one.
But John Steffen, executive director of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, said it's clear that PVAs are state employees and should therefore follow state ethics rules. There is also concern that local ethics codes are less stringent and that enforcement is uneven.
Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, were the only members to vote against the measure.
"We have a chance of watering down" the ethics code that PVAs are supposed to follow, Wayne said of the bill.
Even those who voted to move the bill out of committee expressed concern.
Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville, said many county ethics codes have not been changed or reviewed since they were first required in the 1990s.
Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, expressed similar concerns. Every county's rules are different, yet the duties of the PVA are the same across the state. It's possible that Hardin County might say it's all right to hire a family member but LaRue County could forbid it, Lee said.
"This has a lot of unanswered questions," he said.
Bushart said after Thursday's meeting that he thinks there is enough support in both legislative chambers to get the measure approved.