Comedian and political commentator John Oliver recently reminded America of something Americans United has been saying for years: Kentucky taxpayers drew the short straw when their government officials gave creationist Ken Ham sweetheart deals to build his Ark Encounter theme park.
Sunday on his HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver reviewed some of the tax incentives that state and local governments offer businesses in hopes of spurring economic development. With the news hook of the sometimes outrageous hoops several cities currently are jumping through to land Amazon’s proposed second headquarters, Oliver listed examples of tax incentives that didn’t do much in the way of boosting the economy.
One of Oliver’s prime examples? Ham’s “Ark Park,” allegedly a life-sized replica of Noah’s ark that landed an $18 million state subsidy along with other taxpayer-funded benefits from the state and local governments.
Oliver played news clips showing the empty storefronts and lack of tourists in nearby Williamstown, the community that was supposed to benefit most from the Ark Encounter, which opened in summer 2016.
Then Oliver showed a snippet of an interview with Grant County Judge Executive Steve Wood, who was asked what Ark Encounter has done for downtown Williamstown, the county seat of Grant County. Wood’s response was succinct: “Nothing. I don’t mean to sound negative in this interview, but there’s nothing here.”
Oliver also was critical of Ark Encounter’s discriminatory hiring practices, which prohibit LGBTQ and non-Christian employees while requiring single employees to sign a “chastity pledge.” Oliver noted, “While the ark clearly created some jobs, there were some caveats to those positions.”
On his HBO program "Last Week Tonight," John Oliver criticizes Kentucky's tax incentives to the "Ark Encounter" theme park.
Oliver’s take on Ark Encounter was humorous (and profane – you won’t want to watch this clip with children), but Kentucky residents shouldn’t be laughing. Their state and local governments gave taxpayer-funded incentives to allow a religious organization to use that money to discriminate in its hiring practices while proselytizing.
You’d think Ham and his Answers in Genesis (AiG) organization that operates the park would be grateful for this generous government aid. But as we detailed over the summer, Ham and AiG briefly changed their for-profit business to a nonprofit amid a kerfuffle with Williamstown over a small fee that city officials wanted to assess on every ticket sold at the park. The safety tax would add 50 cents to every ticket to help Williamstown pay for the emergency services that aid the park and its visitors.
After balking at the proposed fee, Ark Encounter briefly converted into a nonprofit entity that theoretically would have been exempt from the safety tax. But the new nonprofit status also nullified the $18 million in state tax incentives the park receives. Ark Encounter was quickly converted back to a for-profit business, the state tax subsidy was restored and AiG agreed to pay the town’s safety fee.
“Look, it is pretty clear that economic development needs to be done in a much smarter way,” Oliver said in the wrap-up of his segment on tax breaks. “And I don’t fully blame the companies for this – if governments are going to offer ridiculous incentives, they are going to take them. So governments need to hold themselves and companies more accountable.”
I don’t disagree, but I’d go one step farther – taxpayers need to hold their governments accountable. Especially those in Williamstown, Grant County and Kentucky, where Ham plans to continue expanding Ark Encounter into an even larger theme park. Are requests for more tax breaks on the horizon?