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School choice bill wins final passage

School-choice advocates are heralding the passage of House Bill 563 – which will usher in a form of scholarship tax credits – as a “historic win for Kentucky students.”

That was the message EdChoice KY President Charles Leis sent in a statement Monday night after lawmakers overrode a veto from Gov. Andy Beshear.

The majority of the local legislative delegation voted against the bill.

“Kentucky legislators told families across the commonwealth: We hear you and are going to work with you to give your kids all the opportunity they need to succeed in the classroom,” Leis said of the new law.

It allows private donors to receive tax credits for contributions to funds that can be used for public school tuition and private school tuition in the state’s most populated counties, including Warren County.

Advocates call the funds education opportunity accounts, and eligibility is capped at 175% of the reduced-price lunch threshold, about $84,800 for a family of four.

“We’re excited to watch Kentucky students and their families utilize education opportunity accounts to find success in the classroom, whether in a public or nonpublic school. When parents choose, Kentucky students win!” Leis said in his statement.

The bill drew opposition from many public education advocates, though not all. Critics said the measure will pull up to $25 million a year out of the state’s treasury.

That’s crucial funding, they argue, that could otherwise go to Kentucky’s K-12 schools. Textbooks, teacher training and full-day kindergarten have not been funded by the state for years.

For his part, Beshear said the measure could draw litigation because of a state constitutional provision that “requires public dollars to be spent on public schools.”

The measure received some local opposition when House lawmakers voted whether to override Beshear’s veto Monday.

Local Democratic Rep. Patti Minter of Bowling Green was joined by Republican Reps. Steve Sheldon of Bowling Green, Michael Meredith of Brownsville and Jason Petrie of Elkton in voting no.

Rep. Steve Riley, R-Glasgow, didn’t cast a vote. Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, voted yes in support of the bill’s final passage.

Another key provision of the bill – one that will make it much easier for students to attend public schools outside of the district they reside in – has divided local superintendents.

Under the measure, students who attend school outside their home district will be counted as part of the school’s average daily attendance, a deciding factor in how schools are funded in Kentucky.

Superintendent Gary Fields of the Bowling Green Independent School District has been a vocal and ardent defender of that provision.

He’s said there is an ongoing “crisis of the independents” across the state, with independent school districts being swallowed up by the larger county school districts that border them.

On the other hand, Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Clayton tweeted his disappointment at the bill passage Monday.

“The negative impact of H.B. 563 is clear and pleading ignorance will be no excuse,” Clayton wrote, adding he’s proud of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents and other education advocacy groups for opposing the measure.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdaily news.com.

Funding on the way for Bowling Green VA center

The fate of a long-anticipated nursing facility for military veterans in Bowling Green is no longer in limbo.

State Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Brownsville, said the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs received a letter from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirming that the $19.5 million grant needed to proceed with building the facility has been approved.

Local military veterans like the late Robert Spiller and Ray Biggerstaff have worked for a decade or more to get the facility built.

Meredith and other legislators worked to get a $10.5 million state match included in the state budget and later to get a $2.5 million appropriation passed for design and pre-construction work completed.

That design work is underway, and Office of Kentucky Veterans Centers Executive Director Mark Bowman said last week that a new 25-acre site in the Kentucky Transpark that is being donated by the Inter-Modal Transportation Authority has met VA officials’ requirements.

The last piece of the puzzle, Bowman told a meeting of the Cumberland Trace chapter of the Military Officers Association of America, was the federal funding.

Now that funding is in hand, Meredith said in a Facebook post Tuesday.

“Today we got the letter we’ve been waiting for and we will be able to move forward on this worthy project for our veterans,” Meredith wrote.

Bowman said at the MOAA meeting that construction could begin in the spring of 2022 and take “a little over a year” to be completed.

Although originally envisioned as a 90-bed facility, the Bowling Green center will most likely be scaled back to 60 beds, Bowman said. He expects it to have 120 to 140 employees and be built in a way that will accommodate expansion.

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.

Judge orders remaining evidence tested in BG murder case

A judge has set a deadline for forensic testing to be completed on evidence collected in a deadly stabbing.

Warren Circuit Judge John Grise entered an order Monday compelling analysts at the Kentucky State Police Crime Lab to complete testing of evidence in the case against Mach Sar by Aug. 1.

Sar, 36, of Elkhart, Ind., is charged with murder and tampering with physical evidence in the death of Somrhut Phan, 29, who was stabbed Jan. 30, 2020, at his residence in Wheel Mobile Home Park.

Grise’s order said a jury trial for Sar is set for Sept. 14, and the forensic testing of evidence is necessary to go forward.

Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron had sought an order from the judge that imposed a deadline for testing evidence in the case.

In a Warren Circuit Court hearing in February, Cohron said a number of items taken from the trailer where Phan died awaited testing.

“We’re looking at 12 to 15 months for lab (analysis) completions absent an order to compel,” Cohron said at the hearing.

The homicide was investigated by the Bowling Green Police Department, which was called to Phan’s trailer early Jan. 30, 2020.

Police found Phan on the kitchen floor bleeding severely and learned he had been stabbed multiple times.

Witnesses identified Sar as a suspect, BGPD Detective Mike Nade testified at a preliminary hearing last year.

Nade said at the hearing that Sar had been staying at the trailer, where a cousin lived.

Police learned of an apparent financial motive, with Nade testifying that police believed Phan had taken either some money from Sar or a picture of his debit card.

A witness reported to police that she woke up in the trailer to sounds of an argument and saw Sar on top of Phan attacking him.

Sar reportedly told another witness that he stabbed Phan about 30 times and was aiming for his heart, Nade testified.

Police recovered a kitchen knife about 10 yards from the trailer.

Sar was located in Indiana later that day and made a statement to police there that a masked intruder had attacked Phan, Nade said.

Sar remains in the Warren County Regional Jail under a $500,000 cash bond.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

Jennifer Bryant, Executive Director of Barren River Area Child Advocacy Center, speaks at a kick-off press conference celebrating the Center's fourth annual Over the Edge fundraising event at Stadium Park Plaza on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. The goal for this year's event, which is scheduled for September 10 and 11, is to raise $100,000. (Grace Ramey/photo@bgdailynews.com)

McConnell touts vaccinations in Bowling Green stop

The COVID-19 vaccine distribution has been “incredibly successful” and “extremely well-organized,” U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in Bowling Green.

During a news conference at The Medical Center-WKU Health Sciences Complex, McConnell spoke about the importance of getting the vaccine.

“I’m here today because it’s time to start emphasizing the importance of getting the vaccine,” he said. “I read the other day that one of the segments of our population that was reluctant to get the vaccine was Republican men. I’m a Republican man, and I took my vaccine as soon as I was eligible. And I certainly encourage everybody to do it. It’s been extraordinarily successful.”

McConnell called the different vaccines that are currently available huge achievements, as he noted that no vaccine has ever been produced this quickly.

“I’ve learned that the flu vaccine is only 50% effective, and they encourage everyone to get that,” McConnell said. “These vaccines – two of them are over 90% effective, and one of them is over 70% effective. It’s a modern medical miracle by any objective measure.”

McConnell has visited more than 30 Kentucky health care facilities since last May to thank health care workers and to discuss the $13 billion impact of the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in Kentucky.

During the news conference, Med Center Health Executive Vice President Ron Sowell said McConnell led the charge to pass the CARES Act, which provided more than $40 million to the hospital.

“We are honored that he has taken time to visit Med Center Health’s vaccination operation here in Bowling Green, where today we will top 55,000 doses of vaccination administered on this campus,” Sowell said.

McConnell also referenced the urgency he and other lawmakers faced when passing the CARES Act.

“We knew we had to act and act quickly,” McConnell said. “We ended up in the middle of a presidential campaign coming together in an almost totally bipartisan way to pass five different bills. The CARES Act – the biggest of the bills – passed without any opposition in the Senate.”

However, McConnell voiced opposition to the recent $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package called the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed.

“Where we are now is the new administration recommended another $2 trillion at a time where I and, in the end, all members of my party felt that it was an overreaction to where we were today,” McConnell said. “I do think we have reached a point here where we need to accept the fact that things are, in fact, getting better.”

McConnell said he would support another package if it contained more “targeted relief.” He said only 1% of the Biden-signed plan was for vaccines, and another 9% went toward health care.

“A number of my members went down to the new president shortly after he was sworn in, and they expressed the view that most of us in my party felt that about $500 or $600 billion was appropriate for where we found ourselves today,” McConnell said. “With all due respect, the president basically listened, and that was it.”

McConnell was also asked about fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, regarding his opposition to wearing masks.

“We agree on many things – we don’t agree on that,” McConnell said.

“Herd immunity is 75% of the population, so we got a ways to go,” McConnell said. “This is not over. But we can all feel the beginning of getting back to normal. I think it’s too soon to throw away the mask. ... This economy is going to come roaring back, and it’s going to come roaring back whether or not we added another $2 trillion to the debt a few weeks ago.”

Med Center Health Vice President of Corporate Support Services Dr. Melinda Joyce said the CARES Act made a “significant impact” on the hospital.

“It allowed us to be able to keep our doors open,” Joyce said. “It allowed us to not have to lay off people. It allowed us to continue to add to the services that we had. Then, we have been able to use that money to help some of the vaccine clinic here. It’s been hugely important to our business.”

Joyce said the clinic is routinely administering 900 to 950 doses of COVID-19 vaccine each day.

– Follow reporter John Reecer on Twitter @JReecerBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

Merger adds fuel to growth of Holley

Holley, the Bowling Green-based designer, marketer and manufacturer of high-performance automotive parts, has given a boost to countless race-car drivers and hot-rod hobbyists over the years.

Now the company is itself getting a fuel injection, one that Holley President and CEO Tom Tomlinson believes will help the maker of after-market products hit a higher gear.

Holley and Empower Ltd., a publicly-traded special purpose acquisition company, announced that they have entered into a merger agreement that will result in Holley becoming a publicly listed company on the New York Stock Exchange under the new ticker symbol HLLY.

The deal ends a century-long tenure as a private company for Holley and begins what Tomlinson sees as a natural next step for a company that has been cruising in the fast lane in recent years from its corporate headquarters on Russellville Road.

“We’ve grown over the last 10 years and have had to go out and find capital to support that growth,” Tomlinson said. “As a public company, we’ll have access to capital more quickly.”

Called Holley Carburetor when it first set up shop in Bowling Green in 1952, the company hit a speed bump called the Great Recession that landed it in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. It has since ridden a turbocharged growth curve in the performance automotive after-market business.

“When you look at our financial history, we’re seven times larger than we were in 2010,” Tomlinson said.

Holley’s net sales for the 2020 calendar year are estimated at $583 million, representing year-over-year growth of more than 25%.

And that has translated into profitability. According to a news release from Holley and Empower, the Bowling Green-based company’s earnings for 2021 are estimated at $159 million.

Tomlinson said Holley – with its headquarters on Russellville Road, two manufacturing facilities in the South Central Kentucky Industrial Park and a distribution center in Franklin – has about 1,500 total employees now.

That number could grow as Holley becomes a public company valued at more than $1.5 billion.

Tomlinson will continue as CEO while Empower CEO Matt Rubel will serve as chairman of the board of directors.

“We set out on this road to find a growing and forward-thinking consumer company to help bring public, and we found it in Holley,” Rubel said in a news release. “Tom and his team have built a true powerhouse of innovation, designed to serve their enthusiast customers.

“The performance automotive after-market is vibrant and growing, and enthusiasts of performance vehicles are amazingly engaged.”

That’s evident by the huge crowds that turn out for the Holley LS Fest at Beech Bend Park and other events sponsored by the company.

“All three of our Kentucky events went forward in 2020, even during the pandemic,” Tomlinson said. “We had a plan to keep spectators safe.

“The events were very successful, so we expect them to continue. We expect over time to add even more events.”

Tomlinson expects the merger to allow Holley to continue its history of diversifying beyond its original mission of making carburetors.

“With our flexible capital structure, we expect to accelerate growth across existing products and channels, as well as continue to pursue attractive opportunities in adjacent categories, both organically through developing innovative new products and making strategic acquisitions,” Tomlinson said.

The CEO said that Holley, which has made its name in the world of gasoline-powered automobiles, can even thrive as the electric vehicle market grows.

“The performance automotive market is a $34 billion market,” Tomlinson said. “We’re continuing to add product categories, and we’re charged up about the electric-vehicle opportunities. We’re already developing products for (EV-maker) Tesla.”

The boards of directors of both Empower and Holley have approved the merger. The transaction will require the approval of the stockholders of Empower and Holley and is subject to certain regulatory approvals. The transaction is expected to close by mid-year.

“We’re just very excited,” Tomlinson said. “This is the next phase in the evolution of our business. It will provide the capital needed for growth that will spell good things for Bowling Green.”

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.