For more than 30 years, library districts across Kentucky operated on the assumption that provisions of House Bill 44, enacted in a 1979 special legislative session, allowed them to increase their revenue by up to 4 percent a year without voter approval.
Plaintiffs in a case heard by a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals this week contend that many of the library districts, those initially created by a petition process, were wrong. because a 1964 law says such districts must petition voters again when they want to raise revenue.
Two circuit judges in Northern Kentucky sided with plaintiffs in the case heard by the appellate panel.
And with at least three similar lawsuits pending in other circuit courts, library officials around the state worry an adverse ruling on appeal could force them to cut tax rates to 1979 levels and refund millions of dollars to taxpayers, moves that would cripple their operations.
An estimated 99 library systems could lose money if the tax suits prevail, the majority losing at least half of their annual operating income. Lexington Public Library would not be affected because it does not set tax rates; it gets revenue collected for it by the local government.
We won't presume to enter into the legal argument other than to note that a lot of state statutes have been rendered obsolete by subsequent legislative action, enough to cause the General Assembly to pass clean-up measures on a fairly regular basis.
Ultimately, the state Supreme Court will decide whether that is the case here and which of these two laws trumps the other.
But the legal issue aside, one thing about this case is very clear: During the 30-plus years when no one raised an objection, officials in library districts created by petition operated in good faith according to the guidance of state revenue officials who told them they were covered by HB 44.
And during those 30-plus years, they used the additional revenue they raised to add substantive value to their communities by providing people of all ages and from all walks of life a chance to improve their minds through books, periodicals, DVDs and the Internet connection they may not be able to find anywhere else.
Libraries are not "luxuries," as plaintiffs in this case argue. They provide a very necessary service to a civilized society.
Since these districts followed the rules as they (and everyone else) knew them all these years, fairness argues against ordering rate cuts and refunds if appellate courts side with the plaintiffs on the law.
If the law makes it harder for districts to raise money going forward, at least until the General Assembly fixes the law, so be it. But rate cuts and refunds are too punitive for districts that were simply following the guidance of state revenue officials.