Public good in granite showers? Tax-deducted locker room puzzling

It's no surprise that Coach John Calipari, in his effort to make the University of Kentucky men's basketball program "more NBA-ish," would envision, and get, a luxurious new locker room for his players at Rupp Arena.

It's not even surprising that UK would claim the wood-paneled changing area with granite showers would help recruit players for other sports even though UK says they will be reserved solely for men's basketball players.

It's no surprise that deep-pockets UK hoops fans would ante up the $2.5 million for the new player digs plus a chi-chi K-Fund booster room where the faithful will be able to gaze at the players through glass as they walk to the arena.

What is surprising, or at least puzzling, is that under federal tax policy taxpayers are helping foot the bill.

That gives pause at a time when tax dollars are scarce and government debts are high.

The majority of the money was given by coal magnate and uber UK basketball supporter Joe Craft to a charitable fund at the Blue Grass Community Foundation created specifically for this project.

No doubt, as foundation executives said, the gift meets IRS requirements for a charitable gift, making it eligible to reduce billionaire Craft's tax bill.

Deductions, like the tax incentives governments love to use to attract businesses, are more palatable than outright expenditures.

After all, even the most ardent fans might gulp if someone suggested diverting tax dollars to granite showers for a few athletes.

But the simple math is this: If Craft pays less in taxes because he gave tons of money for this lavish locker room, then the rest of us will either pay more or receive fewer government services.

That makes sense when those deductible donations support education and the arts, provide safe housing, extend social services and medical care, improve the environment or add land and sports facilities to public parks. The whole community benefits from those gifts.

For example, it's easy to make that case for the tax-deductible fund, also managed by the community foundation, for renovations at the landmark Kentucky Theatre.

Anyone who buys a ticket will enjoy the new digital projection equipment and modern seating. Marquee improvements will benefit people who only walk or drive by the historic theater.

It doesn't seem quite the same for the Rupp project even though foundation officials point out that the public has access to Rupp and the other properties overseen by the Lexington Center Corp. — Triangle Park and the Opera House.

Some parts of the locker room project, they said, will be used for purposes beyond UK men's basketball, and the public can probably make an appointment to tour the locker rooms.

But the point remains that this tax-deductible gift was intended to and will benefit primarily a privileged few — the elite players who are here for only a short time and the wealthy boosters who endure for decades.

It just doesn't ring of tax equity.